What’s So Bad About Automation?

With the rollout of Google Duplex right around the corner, automation and the uncertain future for employment as technology steadily progresses are being brought up as hot topic yet again. I’m sure most of you have seen headlines that point to a bright, bubbly future where Universal Basic Income allows for people to pursue what they really love and not work. You’ve probably also seen the opposite of this idealistic future, where automation is “taking” our jobs and we will all be at the will of the rich corporations who will own all the machinery. Both futures are equally unlikely, as the future will probably be much more mild, though admittedly it will sway more to one side than another.

Automation: Good or Bad?

To say that automation will be strictly good or strictly bad would be negligent to the true nature of how massive, disruptive changes affect people on a global scale. When you’re talking about the livelihood of millions or billions of people, there is no “Can we just”, silver bullet, or obvious, flexible solutions. To prepare for automation, governments will have to coordinate on a level not required before, and most importantly, they will all have to agree on something. One of the very first questions that will need to be answered is whether automation will effect society and quality of life in a positive way or a negative way.

The answer, though dependent on government policies, has a clear moral/humanitarian response: Yes. Without politics and an established socio-economic system, machines taking the responsibilities and work burden away from as many people as possible can only be viewed as a general positive for humankind. This is because as people, we want to cut down on the amount of time we spend doing busywork or tedious chores so that we have more time to do what we want to do.

This is already happening in Singapore, where AI/Machine Learning algorithms are being used to chip away at traditional office and logistical tasks in areas such as finance, healthcare and city management.

I also mentioned Google Duplex, an ‘AI’ that takes the place of you for scheduling appointments, making reservations, or just about any specific-use telephone call that it can learn. This is great if you’re someone like me who hates to make phone calls to schedule or order food, but might suck for the person on the other end talking to a robot instead of a human being. This is a rather mild example of how one group of people may enjoy an automated facet of their lives, but other groups may not.

To dive a little deeper on this, let’s think about some possible consequences of job automation on a grand scale.

To UBI or not to UBI

It’s hard to get an idea of how many jobs will be created and destroyed after automation has run its course, as numerous experts in economics, politics, and technology do not agree on even ballpark numbers. To get an idea of the range, a McKinsey study estimates between 400 to 800 million jobs lost worldwide by 2030, however another study conducted by Thomas Frey says 2 billion jobs will be lost worldwide by 2030. There are also plenty of studies giving estimates for country-specific and field-specific job losses, with more examining different time periods or total. But these studies only deal with projected job loss, not with potential solutions or how it would affect people’s lives on a worldwide scale.

The most common idea for solving mass job losses due to automation is Universal Basic Income, or UBI for short. UBI is not really a new idea, but in the past it was more or less seen as a utopian dream to never be realized. However that has changed in recent years, as concerns for job security have become a priority for many people across the world, and it has gained traction in popular culture with big names like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg supporting UBI.

Not only is UBI being seriously considered by governments and business leaders alike, it has also been tried in different places before with varying levels of success. In Manitoba, Canada, pregnant women who are below the poverty line may receive $64 a month, no strings attached, to help support the “unexpected costs” of having a baby. A great deal of socialist Scandinavian countries have implemented different types of unconditional and conditional aid in the form of hard cash.

So, how well has this worked? The general consensus is that we do not have nearly enough information to make any conclusions or inferences about UBI’s effect on a large economy because no country has really implemented UBI on such a grand, sweeping scale. However, what we can say is that programs like the on in Manitoba do work very well for their specific niches, but we don’t know what the results would be for a Universal Basic Income.

Is it possible to say UBI would solve the problem or exacerbate it? No, it’s not. But the alternative is…nothing. If the jobs are automated and new ones don’t fill in the empty space, a real humanitarian crisis will be on the hands of many of the worlds’ governments. With no jobs for people to work for, many will turn to crime, violence, or riot in the streets. This would be especially true if the world went down a path similar to the movie Elysium where the rich control the companies that own all the automated jobs, thus leaving the poor masses to fend for themselves. This is a highly unlikely scenario, however if automation takes a majority or significant percentage of jobs, UBI may be the only possible solution to keep order and maintain the world economy. The question is, are we ready?

I like to write when the inspiration comes.