It’s easy to dismiss fear of automation as needless paranoia. After all, we’re nowhere near the apocalypse suggested in movies like The Terminator. Robot armies aren’t coming to conquer the world.
But might they be coming for our jobs?
In the 1980s, as robots began to start replacing humans on automobile assembly lines, there was much hand-wringing as unions wondered whether the Detroit engines of American industry would soon be powered by automatons, leaving millions of automobile workers out of jobs.
Those fears slowly ebbed as the Reagan recovery became the Clinton boom. Then September 11 happened and we all started worrying about terrorists instead of robots. In fact US automotive manufacturing employment has been relatively steady from 1980 to the present, with the exception of the current recession, which resulted in a loss of about 300,000 jobs that don’t seem to be coming back. Add to that the fact that car production has been going up without a corresponding increase in employment and we can see that robots do indeed appear to be costing American jobs, at least in automotive manufacturing.
But maybe we can make up for that with jobs producing the robots themselves, right? Not according to Andrew McAfee. He argues that we are now approaching a critical point where automation will erode jobs significantly faster than jobs can be created.
Think about technologies like the Google Car.
Last year, Lawrence D. Burns, former vice president for research and development at General Motors and now a Google consultant, led a study at the Earth Institute at Columbia University on transforming personal mobility.
The researchers found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 m.p.h., carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.
In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute. Assuming a 15 percent profit, the current cost of taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.
Take a moment to consider the employment impact of this change. Instead of 13,000 taxis in New York, there would be 9,000 Google Cars. Assuming the current fleet runs on three shifts (as I understand most of them do), we’re talking about nearly 50,000 jobs, in New York City alone. Now imagine similar workforce replacements for delivery drivers, bus drivers, limousine drivers. You could be talking about well over 100,000 jobs, in just one city, replaced by just one technology.
Now consider this: Driving isn’t the only human job that would be relatively easy to replace with technology that is either currently available or will be available in the next few years. One of the fastest-growing industries, medical care, is also ripe for similar innovations. Current robotics technology could replace 90 percent of what nurses and nurses’ assistants do. And doctors might not be far behind. How difficult would it be, even with current technology, to create a diagnostic robot with access to a vast database of medical information? Perhaps in difficult cases the robot might need to consult with a human, but for routine treatment for strep throat, flu, or other common ailments, why would a doctor be necessary at all?
With the possible exception of so-called “creative” work, it’s hard to come up with a profession that couldn’t be replaced by a robot, in whole or in part.
What jobs that remain in this new automatopia would be extremely poorly-paid, for there would be dozens of people competing for every opportunity, no matter how meager. The result would be, barring an aggressive change to our social structure, economic armageddon.
Indeed, massive social upheaval would be impossible to avoid, whether it was done deliberately in an effort to stave off the inevitable consequences of hyperautomation, or simply allowed to occur “naturally” as a result of robots replacing jobs on a scale no one imagined the need to plan for.
One possible way to avoid the worst effects of automation is something I’ve been thinking would be a good idea to start now: Provide every American with a guaranteed income. It could start small, perhaps $5,000 per person per year in addition to whatever other income they have (including other public assistance). Then as the effects of automation became larger, the guarantee could become larger too, until it was enough for anyone to live on. People would only have to work if they wanted to, and many, presumably, would choose not to. Productivity would continue to merrily increase as the robots and their programmers got better at their jobs, so there should be plenty for everyone.
It’s not such a far-fetched idea, and has even proceeded to the level of a public referendum in Switzerland. But other solutions, such as limiting the workweek or mandating more government services (provided by people, not robots), could work as well.
These technologies are not going to wait for us to dither about how to handle them on a social / governmental scale. And if you don’t believe that a technology can fundamentally alter the economy, you need only consider the impact of the automobile, or the telephone. Those devices led to massive changes in the structure of the American workplace — from the 5-day workweek to the daily commute — and there is no reason to think that the impact of robotics will be any less dramatic. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that its impact will be even greater.