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Automation: To Panic Or Not to Panic, That Is the Question

 7 min read / 

The dramatic headlines have been, and will continue to be, inescapable: “Robots Will Destroy Our Jobs — and We’re Not Ready for It”, “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot — and Sooner Than You Think”, “Robots May Steal as Many as 800 Million Jobs in the Next 13 Years”. Over the next few years, talks of the mix between artificial intelligence and robotics will only increase. The subject of both blue and white-collar workers’ automation will be at the centre of that conversation, alongside matters of war, body enhancement and ethics.

It will come as no surprise that automation is already gaining ground throughout a wide array of industries (even wine-making isn’t safe, and neither is trading), and it often feels like few jobs will survive the technological wrath brought about by artificial intelligence’s future over-arching dominance. These fears are either assuaged or exacerbated by websites such as “willrobotstakemyjob.com“, or this beautiful dataviz from McKinsey charting the automation potential of US jobs.

Having said this, the big question on workers’ mind is: are there reasons to panic?

Though the situation is looking grim for the likes of cashiers and truck drivers, most workers are not in full panic territory yet: according to a PwC report, automation will come in three distinct waves, and the Western World (Westworld?) is only riding the first one.

Wave 1: The Mild Tsunami of Machine-Learning tools.

Regular readers of the Market Mogul will be well aware that employees with data analysis roles and theoretically simple digital tasks are already becoming obsolete thanks to the creation of “basic” AI.

Wave 2: The Worrying Augmentation Inundation.

Estimates say that by the late 2020s repeatable tasks, both within and outside factories, as well as the analysis of more complex information such as financial data, will be done by a mix of human workers and AI, one supervising the other.

Wave 3: The Great Autonomy Flood

By the mid-2030s, mechanical and digital AI will likely be making complex decisions and taking physical actions, such as driving cars, delivering packages or analysing evidence from crime scenes, with little to no human input. Most millennials would then supposedly be at the height of their careers, propping up the argument for immediate panic.

Some jobs, however, will get more recognition as time goes on. Indeed, machine trainer and AI engineer will soon be highly sought after job titles, begging a couple of central questions. Will there be an equal amount of jobs lost and created? And further down the line, can nations retrain their workforce fast enough to fulfil the demand for these new jobs?

A common argument is the following: AI and robots aren’t replacing humans, but simply helping to make their lives at work less tedious. This is not entirely a misrepresentation. Neither is the argument that as lower-wage jobs are automated, companies could pass some of those savings on to consumers by lowering the prices of goods and services.

Furthermore, spending could thus increase, creating more higher-wage, high-skilled jobs. A new report by Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work describes 21 new categories of jobs likely to become professional staples within the next ten years, employing large amounts of workers potentially impacted by automation. These roles all fall into three categories: coaching people to expand their skills, caring for others to improve their health, and connecting humans and machines. All three would require a certain amount of retraining that, for now, no government is seemingly willing to pay for.

Anyone within the corporate world or government writing on the matter has one or more horses in this race and is unlikely to be objective. Prodding various academics gives a much better answer to the questions at hand, which is precisely what the IGM Forum did. They agree on two things:

  1. rising use of robots and AI is likely to increase the number of workers who are unemployed for long periods
  2. rising use of robots and AI is likely to create benefits large enough that they could be used to compensate the workers who are negatively affected by automation.

Governments need to make carefully considered policy decisions to ensure that everyone benefits from automation. Any political aficionado quickly learns that benefits tend to go to shareholders first, not to blue collar workers.

Though automation’s importance vis-à-vis the likes of electricity and fire is still the topic of heated discussions within academia, surely workers will need to develop larger skillsets than ever before to prepare for the future. To that extent, the tech-friendly think tank “Information Technology and Innovation Foundation” (ITIF) published a report detailing how worker training policies will need to be adjusted in the age of AI and robotics.

The (optimistic) policy recommendations fall into four categories:

  1. ensuring full employment, nationally and regionally: this is obvious but sometimes still ought to be written in red ink on government documents.
  2. ensuring workers have the required competencies to retrain before they are laid off: as previously mentioned, few companies are willing to forego profits for the sake of their workers’ future. That is not what their role in society should look like.
  3. reducing financial hardships for laid-off workers: this is the most important point. With assistance, a worker may easily find a few hours within the grind of daily life to retrain if cheap options are available.
  4. providing better transition assistance to help laid-off workers find new employment: such government agencies are sorely lacking in the US, while they are experiencing serious strain in the EU.

As highlighted, most of these are out of reach for the average blue collar worker. Much like other western economies, the US currently invests just 0.1% of its GDP in workforce training and support programs. “It’s not that we’re running out of work or jobs per se,” says David Autor, an MIT economist who studies the impact of automation on employment, “but a subset of people with low skill levels may not be able to earn a reasonable standard of living based on their labour. We see that already.” It is clear that while it is possible to reach a type of automation equilibrium, governments have to launch extensive retraining programs.

For the future economy to function, workers might also need to get rid of the illusion that our professional status is inherently and strongly correlated to our self-worth. Many are calling for a universal basic income – a plan to give every citizen a modest flat annuity from the government. This would safeguard people for whom work doesn’t lead to increased financial security and would arguably allow everyone to benefit from automation, not just the lucky few.

Before dismissing this idea too quickly, it is important to consider it not in the context of the current economy, but of what the economy could become in a future dominated by robots and AI. A government implementing a basic income philosophy would acknowledge that there are too few work hours to be allocated between all available workers and respond by injecting liquidity into the allocation mechanism. Workers would need to be able to exchange hours of work at full pay, for hours of free time paid for by the state.

Other fixes are possible, with varying levels of associated difficulty. Options include limiting the use of temporary workers, extending basic protection to all workers, creating models for portable benefits as people switch jobs more often or work for more than one employer at the time (insurance or unused vacation days would carry from one job to the next). One could also set up mandatory prorated benefits (someone who works a twenty-hour week gets half of the full-time benefits). Finally, taxation on robots has been proposed by many in academia studying the field.

The possibilities are there for any government bold enough to look into them.

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