Every new report shows the machine replacement of human labor is accelerating, with job creation by new technology no longer keeping up with job loss. Last month it was a sophisticated study from the National Bureau of Economic Research
showing that industrial robots alone displace human workers at a stunning rate and have an even more depressive effect on wages. Last year a World Bank study
found that 57% of jobs in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
nations were vulnerable to replacement within the next 20 years. Many experts think this is a more serious problem than the export of jobs abroad.
How big is the problem? Consider just one example. In the United States, 3.5 million truck drivers
could lose their jobs
over the next decade as self-driving trucks hit the highways.
It would be a mistake to think the problem affects mainly manufacturing or low-skill jobs such as truck driving, although that is the sector of the economy where the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on jobs is most visible. Just as mistaken is the idea that retraining displaced workers with high-tech skills is the solution to the problem, because the high-tech jobs are disappearing. Especially with advances in artificial intelligence, the bots are doing more of the intellectual labor once done by highly trained professionals.
Lawyers are losing out to bots
that write routine contracts, wills and deeds. Architects and engineers no longer do the drafting work now done by computer-aided design software. Business writers are being displaced by AI that abstracts and summarizes corporate reports. And medical diagnosis is now in the hands of IBM's Watson
You might think that humans still have to program the robots and code the AI. So you might add your voice to the chorus calling for every child to be taught how to code. But that won't guarantee your child a job, because more and more of the coding is now also done by the computers themselves.
Why is this happening? Partly it's economics. Robots are expensive, but they quickly pay for themselves. They work 24/7 without complaint, they don't need health insurance and they don't join unions. The real game changer, however, is the development of robots and AI that learn on the job.
With machine learning, we don't have to program beforehand every movement and every decision that the bots have to make. Just as a human can learn medical diagnostics, plumbing or policing, so, too, can the robots learn, except that the robots learn 100 times faster, they're never late for a lesson and they don't need weekends off.
What are the consequences? First, there is the economic challenge. Paid labor is the main way in which modern economies distribute wealth. We are already seeing the first signs of new social and economic stress. The top 1% grow ever wealthier, while wages and income for the other 99% stagnate or decline. That's partly due to greed, but it's more a consequence of the fact that, as machines replace human labor, ever fewer people draw paychecks.
Second is the psychological challenge. We tend to define ourselves by the work we do. If someone says to you, "Tell me about yourself," the first response you're likely to give is to describe your work: "I'm a teacher" or "an engineer" or "a nurse." But what if you have no work? Who are you then?
What is to be done? There is a possible solution to the economic challenge: universal basic income. Our economy still generates enormous wealth. The question is how to get that wealth to the people who need it.
The answer might be to provide every American with an income sufficient to buy the basics -- food, clothing, shelter and modest pleasures such as recreation and a bit of travel. There are details to work out, such as how high to set the basic income level so as to cover everyone's needs without turning everyone into a lazy bum. But the concept is straightforward, and its implementation could be surprisingly easy, perhaps building upon the Social Security system. Moreover the cost is reasonable. Divide current total US personal income, around $13 trillion
, by current population, around 320 million, and we get a universal basic income around $40,000 per person. Not bad.
The harder problem is the psychological one and the attendant social and cultural problems. What happens to human nature in a world without work? Will we all become sloths? Or, freed from the need to work, might we find within ourselves a hidden Michelangelo, an unknown Patsy Cline or an undiscovered Maya Angelou? We might find out sooner than we think.