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Will the robots take our jobs?

In a world of accelerating automation, there is increasing clamor over the likely impact on human employment. As an expert panel discussed last weekend, whatever your viewpoint, it is a subject in urgent need of deeper contemplation.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
Benjamin Butler, 7 months old, is photographed by his mother (unseen) as he sits in his baby seat next to the newest art installation of a robot and a barcode by British artist Banksy, on a wall in the Coney Island area of New York City, October 28, 2013.

Technology pervades almost every facet of modern life, and the automation of tasks traditionally done by humans is accelerating, with self-driving cars roaming our streets and drones patrolling the skies.

Yet these advances are not uniformly welcomed, and there are many pitfalls, many dangers, as well as opportunities.

One of the fundamental concerns is the impact this will have on human employment, as considered by a panel of experts last weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“There are those who find themselves torn between creating machines capable of undertaking many tasks, and concern over the impact this may have on people’s jobs,” says Wendell Wallach, scholar at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, and author of "A Dangerous Master: How to keep Technology from Slipping beyond our Control," in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“But people shouldn’t feel inhibited from creating the technology, because it’s not so much a problem of the technological or artificial intelligence economy, but rather the political economy and how we compensate people whose jobs are taken.”

Automation is happening, and it is unlikely the tide can now be turned, even if there was political will to do so.

With that in mind, two fundamental questions remain: how revolutionary will this really be, in terms of the impact on people’s jobs, and what can be done to mitigate any negative impact?

The renowned economist John Maynard Keynes wrote over 85 years ago of this very threat, in an essay entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment.”

He goes on to define this as unemployment precipitated by mankind’s progress in “economizing the use of labor,” exceeding the speed at which we can find new uses for our labor.

Many economists have long argued that, in fact, advances in technology have increased prosperity, boosted wages and created jobs. And, as noted in The Economist, they have largely been on the right side of the argument.

But Mr. Wallach states that "this time, it’s different". The moment when Keynes’s prophecy will be realized is upon us.

It is important to note, however, that automation does not represent an unadulterated apocalypse; it brings many benefits.

Robots can carry out boring, repetitive, even dangerous tasks, the kinds of jobs that “no human should be doing, day in, day out,” as Wallach says.

“The most exciting recent advance in AI [Artificial Intelligence] is that computers are starting to be able to 'hear' and 'see',” says Bart Selman of Cornell University’s Department of Computer Science in an email interview with the Monitor.

“Combined with earlier work in AI, this will allow for the automation of a wide range of jobs.”

Dr. Selman talks of commercial transport, citing that this represents 10 percent of all employment – and predicting it will disappear over the next 10 to 15 years.

“Initial efforts will combine human and AI systems, before full automation,” says Selman. “But there is already a significant reduction in employment. For example, Amazon warehouses are being automated using shelving robots. Only 10 percent of jobs remain.”

Proponents of this emerging future envision a time when the need for human labor will all but vanish, and life will be a pursuit of pleasure.

Whether that idea is something that excites or scares, it begs the question of how we will all receive an income, the financial means to live this life of leisure.

“We need to be considering political and economic solutions to ameliorate the effects,” says Wallach, going on to propose a guaranteed minimum income – not a minimum wage, but a blanket minimum income, given to everyone.

“It could take many forms,” Wallach continues, “including some kind of proof that you’re doing something that provides a meaningful social contribution.”

And how would it be financed? "By taxing future profits."

But this is, as Wallach puts it, “getting into the weeds." First, we need more research, to understand what really is happening in our complex political economies.

“If our political class doesn’t begin addressing this, we will move towards increased political instability – as a result of the impact of automation in concert with other issues,” concludes Wallach. “This is one of those important factors that isn’t being addressed.”

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