Since we have entered the information age, automation has become an increasingly significant concern for many jobs; for example, 20 years ago, we thought that driving would be impossible for cars, but today, your car can drive itself for less than 1000 dollars. This is becoming the case for an ever-growing number of jobs; now, machines can land planes, diagnose cancer, and trade stocks much quicker and much cheaper than their human counterparts. The rise of the machines is here, and it is not going away. Automation will at some point even take what we now consider relatively safe jobs; In February 2021, the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that 45 million Americans—one-quarter of the workforce—would lose their jobs to automation by 2030, a figure which many consider a conservative estimate.
Our economies are mainly predicated on the idea that people will consume goods and services, but if barely anyone has a decent job, and only ultra-rich technocrats make any money, then no one will be left to buy what our economy produces, and a large portion of the population will have nothing to do and no money to spend.
However, this is not a picture set in stone, and many think that automation could be a force for human flourishing that could reduce poverty, accelerate progress and be responsible for a rise in living standards and opportunities for all, given the right circumstances.
Tackling this issue is one of the most important things to get right for our country, and many innovative solutions are on the table, including a UBI.
In the long run, humanity will never beat the efficiency of machines. Although, increasing our productivity could decelerate the future of automation. From 2010-2014, worldwide productivity growth declined from 2.45% to 0.5%. At that rate, humanity will be overcome sooner rather than later, unless our rate of productivity evolves. Despite any efforts, the human workforce could become completely obsolete in the coming decades. Job automation is inevitable, but humans can prolong it if we increase our efficiency.
As it stands, the education system is a static endeavor for most people, preparing them for one profession that will consume the rest of their lives. To prepare people for the future of automation, increasing people's ability to learn and adapt is necessary. What this could look like is making tuition cheaper and more accessible for all, like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Such changes would create a more competent workforce better suited for the changing demands that new jobs would bring.
Automation is predicted to accelerate the shift in required workforce skills that we have already seen in the last decade. There will be an increasing demand for technological skills like programming, and higher cognitive skills will also become more sought after, especially those involving creativity and critical thinking. It is also the case that jobs involving physical labor will be on a decline and are expected to decline by 14% in the next nine years; the same is true for industries involving low-cognitive skills such as retail and service.
Redesigning work and embracing AI
As machines become more advanced and tasks that would ordinarily take days can be accomplished in seconds, workers have to adapt to the new tooling and be more integrated with new technologies. Things will also have to change at an organizational level since companies will be forced to become more agile, collaborative, and distributed as technology improves.
A Universal Basic Income is exactly what it sounds like; however, there are many complex nuances concerning this matter. This is considered the most ambitious social policy of our times, and a growing number of countries are considering UBI as an alternative to welfare. Currently, most discussions center around the minimum basic income, which would be enough to live above the poverty line, but in regards to automation, some consider this insufficient and expect that in a future where automation has taken over most jobs, a more extensive economic living program is required.
Many believe that traditional economics would break down as automation takes over a majority of the workforce since there would be nothing to trade goods and services for if a majority of the population were unemployed. Thus, a fully state-sponsored living would have to be in place to ensure an active society.
Adapted social safety net
While multiple definitions are used, a Social Safety Net (SSN) typically refers to a government system that prevents people from falling below a certain plane of economic standing. As the value of human workers continues to decrease, a well-funded SSN may be viable due to the massive revenue that cheap AI labor would produce. An SSN could also break the societal pressure of pursuing lucrative occupations, giving way for more meaningful ventures. The same group relying on an SSN has also been referred to as the "useless class." As Andrew Anagnost of Autodesk described them, they would be people with "no economic or societal value." A more realistic future for this class is purposeless, low-wage jobs and severely affected mental well-being. As the struggle against irrelevance would grow, a well-funded SSN would be necessary to preserve their humanity.
- How should we respond to automation?
- Will the short-term solutions like redesigning work be enough to stave off automation?
- What happens when there are no jobs for people to transition to?
- Is UBI a viable solution now, if not, at what level of unemployment due to automation would it be acceptable?
- How could people respond to the growing issue of irrelevance?
- What will be left for people to do once their jobs are taken over, would we all live in a carefree utopia or a meaningless hell?
- Will there always be a need for humans in the workforce? Where?
Anagnost, Andrew. “Will a Smart Social Safety Net Help People Survive the Age of Automation?” Redshift EN, June 12, 2019. https://redshift.autodesk.com/age-of-automation/.
Manyika, James, and Kevin Sneader. “AI, Automation, and the Future of Work: Ten Things to Solve For.” McKinsey & Company, 2018. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/ai-automation-and-the-future-of-work-ten-things-to-solve-for.
McKinsey Global Institute. “The Future of Work after COVID-19 | McKinsey.” www.mckinsey.com, February 18, 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19.