Look. Robots are displacing human workers around the globe, and even the world's biggest tech companies aren't creating enough other jobs to even the scales. Below, 60 Minutes rounds up some of the most high profile examples of robo-labor edging out the human variety: Sorting robots, manufacturing robots, stock-trading robots, oh my. Robots doing the jobs humans once did; each eliminating employment opportunities. And some of these robots are actually already cheaper than Chinese laborers. So even workers in developing countries will be fighting over robots for jobs.
The service industry isn’t safe either—there are already waitstaff-free restaurants. What’s more, the information technology sector, that great hope for future job creation, isn’t making up the difference. Not even close.
The bluntest way this is framed comes at the end of the piece: Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook combined account for over $1 trillion dollars of market capitalization. Yet they only employ around 150,000 people total. That’s less than half the number of people who work for GE. And it’s roughly the number of people that enter the U.S. job market every month. In other words, it’s a farce to believe that tech giants, internet startups, and app developers will ever be able to employ the same number of people that manufacturing once did.
The world is fundamentally changing; the economic assumptions that currently gird our society will be meaningless in as soon as a few decades. And we’d better get ready to prepare for that shift—if we don’t adjust the current socio-economic structure, we’re going to have mass joblessness, and society-wide chaos. We’re going to need to fundamentally reform not just our policies but our attitudes towards work. We’re going to need to re-engineer the social safety net from the ground up to account for the fact that robots are taking over on the labor front.
What’s the point of building society around a 40-hour work week, after all, when robots are doing all the heavy lifting?
We have a couple options to consider: the wisest would be to aim for something like a guaranteed minimum income. When robots are doing our work, everyone should benefit, and no one should be left out cold. Under the current trajectory, only those who own the robots will benefit from the rise of automation. The rich will get richer, the masses will get jobless. And restless.
Since there simply won’t be enough job slots for the entire population, we’re going to have to account for the shortfall, and recognize that work, as we currently conceive it, will no longer be the average person’s principal contribution to society. If we’re intent on maintaining a capitalist economy, there’s going to have to be a basic allowance allotted to citizens that’s untethered to the labor market—because pretty soon, the numbers just won’t add up. There won’t be any realistic route to full employment when robots become cheap, efficient, and flexible enough.
So we should probably look to providing all citizens a flat salary per annum. Tax the robot owners to do it; they’ll be richer than God soon anyway. Or, as Yglesias suggests, we could
abolish private property in ideas and natural resources. Then by taxing pollution, land, congestion, and other externalities we have adequate revenue to provide a decent social minimum for all at which point people do what they like. Some people’s hobbies will align reasonably well with some kind of labor market opportunity whereas others won’t, but society won’t be organized around a “work hard or else you’ll starve and be homeless” model because there will not objectively be a shortfall of food and houses or much of anything else.
Or we’ve got to drastically expand and streamline unemployment benefits, and de-stigmatize unemployment.
Good thing, then, that this specter comes looming at a moment of unprecedented Congressional paralysis. Unlike coping with global climate change or immigration, we do have a few years to get these kind of reforms underway—but I’m willing to take odds that we’re not going to be ready anytime soon nonetheless, seeing as how everything I’ve just suggested would instantly make any Tea Partier’s head explode.
It is possible that the rise of the robot workforce could end up being a major boon to society—we just need to calibrate our assumptions and policies to allow it to be. With some luck and progressivity, we may yet be able to fashion some slender variant of those work-free techno-utopias dreamed up in the past. Or, of course, we could plunge into a dystopic, inequality-ravaged hell-hole where a few titans of industry reap the profits of robot labor while the rest of us hopelessly slum it up in a cyberpunk-esque future. It’s our call.