Meet the Technology that Wants Your Job

Photo Courtesy of CompFight

Photo Courtesy of CompFight

The continued rate of high unemployment around the world has many causes.  But one trend in particular has the capability to truly replace us all – Robotics.

Nowhere is robotics taken more seriously than in Japan.  The nation’s scientists have embraced robotics more than any other nation and estimates are that Japan has over 30% of the world’s deployed robots.  Most of these are of course used in manufacturing, but Japanese researchers are hard at work to invent robot technology that can be used in day to day society.

A NY Times article from a few of weeks ago – “Computers Jump  to the Head of the Class” – reported on a project started by a University of Tokyo math professor, Noriko Arai called “Can a Computer Enter Tokyo University?”.  The essence of the project is to create a computer with the ability to pass the entrance exam for Tokyo University by 2021.  TU is Japan’s top university and by far the most difficult to get into.  Even after years of preparation only a very small percentage of applicants are able to pass the grueling test.  The idea is that that if a computer can pass the TU entrance exam, then it theoretically should be able to perform most jobs done by university graduates.

How’s it going so far? Ms. Arai states “With the development of artificial intelligence, computers are starting to crack human skills like information summarization and language processing.  Given the exponential growth in computing power and advances in artificial intelligence, or AI programs, the TU robot’s task, though daunting, is feasible”.  She goes on to say that “so far, her protege is excelling in math and history but needs more effort in reading comprehension.”

Robots have already made huge inroads into the manufacturing world and the pictures of a large manufacturing floor turning out cars or electronics with very little human intervention is a sight to behold.  But “white collar” thought based work is something completely different.  We’ve always thought that “human judgement and creativity” would be safe for many years from the advancements of robotics and artificial intelligence.  But that assumption no longer holds.

Professor Arai herself recognizes the looming problem: “There is significant danger, Ms. Arai says, that the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, if not well managed, could lead to a radical restructuring of economic activity and the job market, outpacing the ability of social and education systems to adjust.”  Chilling, no doubt.  You can visualize the bumper stickers that will appear:

“Keep Human jobs in Human Hands”

“A Robot Stole My Job and All I Got left is this Bumper Sticker”

“Robots Don’t have Hearts, Hire a Human”

In the case of Robotics, the changes it will impact on the nature of employment could be dramatic. Dr. Adai speculated on the implications:

  • Intelligent machines could be used to replace expensive human resources, potentially undermining the economic value of much vocational education.
  • High salary jobs would remain for those equipped with problem-solving skills, but many common tasks now done by college graduates may vanish.
  • We do not know in which areas human beings outperform machines.  That means we cannot prepare for the changes.  Even during the industrial revolution, change was a lot slower.
  • Over the next 10 to 20 years, ten percent to twenty percent pushed out of work by AI will be a catastrophe.  I can’t begin to think what 50 percent would mean – way beyond a catastrophe and such numbers can’t be ruled out if AI performs well in the future.”  *Dr. Arai’s concern is confirmed by a study published by Oxford University’s Program on the Impacts of Future Technology – which predicts that possibly half of all jobs in the U.S. could be replaced by AI based computers sometime in the next 20 years.

This problem of technological advance upending every aspect of our lives will be with us for a long time.  Sometimes the answer will be to work hard to stop a particular development from occurring as the costs far outweigh the societal gains, and in some cases the answer may be to use the particular technology development as a gateway to enable change in other parts of society for an overall net positive good.

An important book published this past year from economist Tyler CowanAverage is Over:  Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation – speaks eloquently and starkly about the impact of computerization on today’s workforce.  In the book he makes clear that those who succeed in the next decade will be those who have skills to work synergistically with computerized technology.  Examples of this would be those in the financial world using computer algorithms in conjunction with their financial trading expertise to increase their results.   Or, surgeons using robotic technology to perform difficult surgeries with more precision and higher probability of success.  So in essence, those jobs where a computer can’t (yet) replace a human, but can enhance his or her function, will become more valuable.  Those jobs where a computer can essentially do the whole task, will go away.  Mr. Cowan does point out that there will be some jobs where human interaction, decision making, and judgement will for a long time outpace the ability of computers – nursing or coaching are examples.

In both Mr. Cowan’s and Professor Adai’s comments, the truth remains that these are trends that are occurring and are not going away. The problem is that it’s not realistic to believe that large amounts of our workforce will easily be able to migrate to advanced skill level work.  Or, that there will be enough jobs for everyone in those areas even if they could.  Unless we expect to have most of our population in low-paying service sector jobs (one would have to believe robotics would affect those as well ultimately), then there must be another answer.

One possible solution is being explored by a number of European countries and Switzerland in particular.  Late in 2013, Switzerland announced that enough votes by its citizens was obtained (100,000) for its “Citizens’ Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income” to force a referendum vote on the measure sometime possibly in 2014.  The proposal’s aim is to provide a Basic Income Guarantee to each of its citizens over the voting age – a yearly stipend equivalent to $2,800 per month.

There aren’t many details available, but at its core the idea is to replace all other social welfare benefits and just provide everyone with the basic monthly payment. All the various forms of governmental aid could then be eliminated – no more housing assistance, foodstamps, welfare checks, head start, school lunches, etc.   There is now also a European Union wide initiative that is similar and has more details – (see resources below).   Other countries, including the U.S., have contemplated a similar scheme and with different variations.  Say, instead of a flat payment, people would be given extra income on top of what they are currently earning to get them to a minimum threshold.  For example, if you are earning the minimum wage and only making $12,000 a year, then perhaps you will receive another $12,000 to get you to a minimum living wage.

Corporate profits are at an all time high, income inequality in the U.S. is at an all time high, and robots and other computer based technologies continue to replace the need for humans doing the work.  Just as companies look for the lowest wage labor sources among countries, they are doing the same with technology substitutes for the labor itself.  Or, as Tyler Cowan points out, technology co-partners to humans.  Either way, more of what needs to get done in the world of work, will continue to be outsourced to machines.  In some ways, this is a good thing – what we’ve been waiting for all along.  The march to a society where humans can focus on their most creative aspects and leave the drudgery to the machines.

Could then an Unconditional Basic Income unleash a tsunami of human creativity, entrepreneurism, and cultural renaissance?  The impact of today’s situation of high poverty (one in five children in America live in poverty), one or both parents in low income households working two jobs, has a number of societal affects that impact all of us, not just those directly affected.  No one lives in a bubble (well, some do come close…).  We can all be affected by the individual circumstances of our fellow citizens – crime in general, class mates and co-workers experiencing mental health issues, overly stressed workers at businesses we frequent, and more.  In that regard, giving every citizen a basic floor of safety, where they can at least eat and live with some stability and positively affect their families (and society) in the process would seem to be a huge net positive for all of us.  Include health care and higher education into the mix and we could see a radically different and flourishing society.

Would people be disincentivized to work?  Perhaps some would, but the amounts being discussed (a plan for the U.S. was proposed at $1,700 per month), would hardly allow people to frequent fine dining establishments, purchase lavish vacations, and play golf every day.  There would still be plenty of incentives to earn higher incomes.   What it may do instead, is to give people a safety net to pursue their passions and take more career risks.  Would you take on a new job, perhaps even move your family in the process, if you knew there was a measure of safety in place for you?  Would more people try their hand at creating new businesses and ventures?  I think yes.  In this scenario, Capitalism doesn’t go away, it instead gets unleashed with more creativity (and yes, more safety for all citizens).

The interesting thing is that the Unconditional Basic Income (first proposed in 1972 in the U.S. by Senator George McGovern) has both liberal and conservative supporters.  In fact, Libertarian writer Matthew Feeney wrote an article last November titled, “Why Libertarians should embrace a guaranteed basic income”.  He outlined the benefits he sees the Guaranteed Basic Income bringing:

Whatever the outcome of the Swiss referendum, libertarians in the U.S. and elsewhere should support the idea of a basic income as a replacement for the current welfare systems on offer. The welfare system in the U.S. is an ineffective and expensive mess, but it is unlikely that the majority of the American public are going to be persuaded to support the outright abolition of the welfare state any time soon. Rather than make the principled argument against the redistribution of wealth, libertarians would do better if they were to argue for a welfare system that promotes personal responsibility, reduces the humiliations associated with the current system, and reduces administrative waste in government.

The interesting thing is that given the pace of technological change, we may have no choice but to radically re-envision how we take care of our citizens.  The figure in the University of Oxford report of 50% job replacement by robots in 2 decades – may be wildly off the mark.  But even 20% or 30% in that same time period would be devestating.  Are we prepared for that?  Perhaps the Swiss will make their proposal a reality and provide us a test case for the future.  The clock is ticking…those Robots are fast learners…

By Jay Kshatri

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • cvxxx

    Actually these concerns have been explored. There are many pitfalls. Yes there will be a time when what we think of as “work” is changed to creativity. And a life of leisure. The big problem will be that not all nations will be able to enter paradise at the same time. Another issue is the cultural, ethnic,and religious diversity. Some of the religions and ideologies are not compatible. The only way those are included is through fear of a central power. But those systems fail every so often.
    With a basic income would we not be trading one type of poverty for another? Even with say a guaranteed level of housing and the basic of the era would it not result in the very things we are trying to prevent?