Consequences of Increased Automation
By Timmy Broderick
It’s Friday night and you’re stumbling north along Middle Path. Drunk enough to vault your mental paywall, you dial Papa John’s and order a large pizza for delivery to Caples. After returning to your room, you fall asleep until a familiar buzzing sound awakes you: pizza’s here. You open your window and the drone hands you a large pepperoni pizza. It flies off into the night sky as you ascend into cheesy bliss. If this sounds like science fiction, look up the “DomiCopter.” To all pizza delivery guys: beware. You, and many others, may soon be replaced.
Last August, CPG Grey, a prominent YouTuber, released a video entitled, “Humans Need Not Apply.” In it, he explains in frightening detail how machines might soon supplant human workers. Forget assembly lines—truck drivers, doctors, and musicians could all be affected by these changes. These are but a few of the many professions where robots could do jobs more efficiently for less money. Skeptical? Look up “driverless cars,” “IBM’s Watson doctor,” and “Emily Howell.” Grey claims that mass unemployment—as high as forty-seven percent—due to technological advancement is not just a possibility, but an eventuality.
While this is obviously not a given, increased automation is bound to fundamentally change society. Many prominent thinkers believe that technological advancement inherently leads to more jobs, that the very rules of economics demand this. Nothing guarantees this, except fallacious retroactive thinking. If forty-seven percent unemployment becomes our reality, good luck, Washington (as a point of comparison, the Great Depression’s unemployment rate only rose to twenty-five percent). Our welfare systems would crumble; those in power would amass an even greater share of the wealth than they have today; the inequality gap would become a chasm.
Radical political, economic, and societal restructuring must follow this technological advancement if we are to ward off possible societal collapse.
We have two options: slow or stall technological progress or adapt to the changes it brings. To accomplish the former, our leading thinkers and politicians need to start discussing how technology should affect our daily lives, and what technological progress ultimately achieves. The Future of Life Institute recently published an open letter calling for responsible progress in artificial intelligence, which numerous prominent thinkers have signed, such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. An encouraging sign, but when has ethics ever slowed scientific progress? (I’m looking at you, Manhattan Project.) My money is on adaptation, and thus, radical political, economic, and societal restructuring must follow this technological advancement if we are to ward off possible societal collapse. But to solve this problem, we must first look at our current system: capitalism.
Capitalism fundamentally intertwines producers and consumers. One cannot survive without the other. If consumers are unemployed en masse, consumption will stop. But if consumption ceases, any production is ultimately vacuous. How do we untie this thorny knot? One possible solution is a basic income guarantee (BIG), or, an amount of money, equivalent to the social minimum, given to every adult citizen, regardless of means. Before you scream Marxist accusations at me, consider the fact that Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Richard Nixon all advocated for some type of basic income. Some of its benefits: it provides sure-footing for those weathering a job loss and a possible escape from chronic unemployment; it allows people to engage in long-term planning, which leads to many benefits, e.g. buying a place usually ends up cheaper than renting in the long-run; it simplifies convoluted welfare programs, full of numerous qualification hoops, that waste everyone’s time and money.
Many countries throughout the world (Namibia, Canada, Iran, India, United States) have either tried pilot programs or currently operate programs with many positive findings. Namibia began a pilot program in 2008, which led to a major reduction in crime, child malnutrition, and high school dropout rate, though the government cancelled it in 2009. In the 1970s, the Canadian government conducted a five-year study (“Mincome”) in Dauphin, Manitoba, which, in addition to reducing poverty, led to a number of health benefits among town residents (fewer hospital visits, both general and psychiatric) and lowered the high school dropout rate. The United States even started a few studies in the 1960s and 70s under LBJ and Nixon, but all of them died from lack of support.
Basic income guarantees are hardly popular. Those who scoff at their very mention normally highlight either decreased worker productivity or fiscal feasibility (cost and inflation). In fact, however, during Namibia’s program, the rate of income-generating activities actually increased. Many other studies have also failed to find a significant decrease in productivity. The debate over its financial impact is still a little unclear. Although no study has ever found that a BIG leads to rampant inflation, no study has had a large enough scope to properly investigate this claim, likewise for determining how to afford a BIG in perpetuity. That said, ignoring the difficulty in passing a BIG bill through Congress, if the United States government ended all other welfare programs (SNAP, SSI, TANF, WIC, et al.) could it sufficiently finance a BIG? It seems plausible.
But what about the future? The previously mentioned BIG programs take place in societies whose current unemployment rate is far less than what rampant automation forecasts. We whine about our own difficulties in landing a post-grad job, but our children might not be eligible candidates for any jobs after graduating. And this future is almost here: the most dire reports predict that mass unemployment due to automation could happen within the next two decades. The severity of this situation requires drastic measures beyond a BIG, including major cultural shifts.
Our society fetishizes the workaholic; we love to play the busy game. Yet what will we do when we cannot play this game? Some futurists believe that technological advancement ends in a type of utopia, where all of us pursue the life that our heart desires. But it is important to remember that a BIG provides people with the social minimum, enough for housing and food, with only a little left over. Paywalls still restrict the poor from engaging in many leisure activities enjoyed by the rich: they can’t go backpacking in Europe, nor can they afford that Lexus. All that has changed is that, instead of living backbreaking lives, the poor live sedentary lives. The government must provide outlets for the dispossessed; very rarely is a sedentary life a purposeful (or healthy) life.
If we do not start dealing with these issues now, we may not successfully deal with the problem until it is too late. At the World’s Fair in 1964, Isaac Asimov predicted that, by 2014, “Mankind will … have become largely a race of machine tenders.” He was wrong, but for how long? We are not yet machine tenders, but technology stands outside our door, knocking, hoping for a good tip for gas money.