News and opinion

What will we do when robots take our jobs?

Robot worker


    “The factory of the future will have only two employees: a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

    These aren’t the paranoid ramblings of a doom-bringing anti-capitalist, but the words of Carl Bass, CEO of multinational corporation Autodesk. And do you know what? He might not be wrong.

    Simply comparing the mobile phones of the year 2000 to the one you might be reading this on will show you how quickly time and resource-saving technology moves - especially when there are money, minds and momentum behind it.

    In your pocket nowadays, you’ve most likely got a torch, a GPS, an atlas, a diary, an alarm clock, a music player, a camera, a mirror, a camcorder, an encyclopaedia, a Yellow Pages…. the list is endless. Who knows which of our demands our portable devices will fulfil next?

    The robot revolution isn’t on its way - it’s already happening before our very eyes.

    Been made redundant? Here's what to do.

    Automation vs future-proof freelancers

    Sure, technology has been disrupting industry for as long as technology and industry have both existed. The likes of cars, the printing press, and the internet have each turned the working world on its head. But innovation isn’t slowing down, and a prominent computer scientist, Professor Moshe Vardi, a few years ago warned that the rise of the robots could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50% within the next 30 years.

    Interestingly though, since the great recession, the figures showing people deciding to take the plunge and start their own businesses have skyrocketed. By the fourth quarter (Oct to Dec) of 2019, there were more than 5 million self-employed1 people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000.

    It makes sense, after all. Self-employed creative artists, performers, or generally those relying on human empathy (e.g. therapists and consultants) are arguably the ones least likely to be cancelled out by mass automation in the near future. Their freedom to guide their own careers will certainly mean that they are able to tailor their work to the changing landscape rather than just waiting to be made redundant.

    For everyone else, if you want to be in demand in a few decades’ time (or perhaps sooner!) perhaps now’s the time to get really good at repairing worker-bots for when this familiar scene from Total Recall invariably happens in real life.

    Moving with the times

    Pippa Malmgren (founder of the DRPM Group, co-founder of H Robotics and George W Bush’s former economic advisor) is pretty chilled out about the situation, and says we should all just adapt - like we always do.

    “I really have trouble with this idea of mass unemployment” she told the BBC’s The Inquiry.

    “We've been afraid of that for generations, and every single time, we create new businesses that no-one ten years before - let alone a hundred years before could possibly have imagined. Even today, we have a community of people who make apps. Nobody even knew what that meant ten years ago.”

    While nothing Malmgren claims here is particularly controversial, many would argue that tech companies simply aren’t taking on new staff at nearly a rapid enough rate to compensate for the job losses in the sectors they’re crushing - and when they do, industry is merely centralised in particular locations.

    Carl Frey, co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at the University of Oxford claimed:

    “My reading of the evidence is that the digital economy hasn’t created many jobs directly, and the jobs it has created tend to be concentrated in cities like London, San Francisco, New York and Stockholm, which drives up prices, creates inequality and makes it difficult for people to live in or move to places where new jobs are emerging.”

    Avoiding a complete economic meltdown is going to require a dramatic shift in how the country (and indeed, the world) thinks about wealth distribution. At least the late Professor Stephen Hawking seemed to agree:

    “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

    With a rising population and a falling job market, job-shares and an increase in part-time work would be a feasible solution - if only people were able to afford it.

    This is where the argument for a guaranteed basic income comes in.

    Money for nothin’?

    The Universal Basic Income (UBI) - also sometimes known as a Citizens Income - is an idea that is gaining more mainstream exposure in recent times, with the Labour Party having investigated the possibility currently looking into the possibility of making a version of this a future policy.

    In a nutshell, its implementation would see all citizens receiving a regular, tax-funded payment sufficient for a basic quality of life. This would be instead of the very complex set of tax credits, benefits, and allowances currently in place.

    Supporters argue that this would practically eradicate poverty in the country whilst cutting the administrative costs of means testing.

    The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) recently released a report showing a fully costed way in which every UK citizen would receive several thousand pounds a year, citing “increasing modern concerns about the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, and superlative computing power” as an incentive.

    The idea, of course, is not without its critics. As you would expect from an unpolished policy that, on face value, advocates giving everyone free money, there has been a lot of speculation that the economy would suffer as a result. Opponents also believe that allowing people to survive without work would severely reduce productivity whilst sending the price of goods and services soaring.

    On the other hand, Switzerland-based collective Business for Basic Income argues that introducing the UBI would actually be good for the economy.

    “Today the notion of failure prevents many initiatives. With the security of a lifelong basic income the self-confidence will increase and many procreative ideas will become reality. The increasing establishment of small businesses will lead to more innovation and competition. This enhances the economic output.”

    Green Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, who put forward an Early Day Motion calling on the government to fund research into the practicalities of the UBI, also advocated its potential for increasing small business growth in the Independent.

    “I know from speaking to people in my own constituency that the stability of a basic income could be a real boost to freelancers and entrepreneurs who need support to experiment, learn and take risks, while keeping their heads above water.”

    Pushing things forward

    To get the ball rolling early, Silicon Valley startup Y Combinator is conducting a basic income experiment with 100 families in nearby Oakland, California. “If technology eliminates jobs or jobs continue to become less secure, an increasing number of people will be unable to make ends meet with earnings from employment” said Elizabeth Rhodes, the first director of the company’s non-profit research arm.

    “Basic income is one way to ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. We’re not sure how it would work or if it’s the best solution, which is why we want to conduct this study.”

    While, as the poor recent result of the Swiss referendum on UBI shows, the global appetite for the policy may not be resounding at this point in time - mass job losses as a result of technological advancement and automation are on the rise. Ironing out the creases via trials (such as the aforementioned Y Combinator’s or the upcoming one in Ytrecht) may well be a necessary measure in preparing us for the automation age.

    The automation age - the perfect time to panic?

    Joel Mokyr, History and Economics Professor at Northwestern University, has written six books about the industrial revolution, and has warned of automation destroying the economy:

    “It’s not yet a central item on the agenda of the economics professionals or politicians, and that is what you’d expect, because usually we don’t realise we’re in a crisis until it’s too late to do anything about it”.

    Time waits for no-one. Neither does technology. Perhaps it’s time we took heed, and started taking hastier steps to adapt to our surroundings.

    Any better ideas? Let us know in the comments below.

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