These days, there’s a lot of talk about what robots will do to the workforce. Most people are convinced that a robot will eventually takeover their job. It’s only a matter of time before you exclaim to your friend as your sip your sad, warm beer, “That robot stole my job!” Well, I have bad news and good news. This could happen sooner than you think, but it doesn’t have to mean doom and gloom for humans.
Reports do paint an unhappy picture for low-skill jobs like data entry and physical labor. There could be 10-800 million jobs lost to robots worldwide by the end of the next decade depending on growth of automation in the workplace. This job loss accounts for anywhere from 0-30% of the global workforce. Higher skilled workers are not expected to see a significant loss in jobs due to automation.
Of course, the job-impact depends on how fast automation is adopted into these vulnerable fields. How worried should you be? If you do data entry, you might want to worry. If you do manual labor, you should probably worry now. According to another report that looked at automation adoption between 1990-2007, once robotic automation kills jobs, they don’t come back. When the bots work reliably, they are more efficient than humans and cost far less (robot don’t need health insurance or a living wage), so why rehire the humans?
Here’s an example of what’s to come: Tesla truck fleets will make truck drivers folklore and human Uber and Lyft drivers will be just a blip in the history of transportation services. Uber. Lyft. Apple. Google. Tesla. Do you know what they all have in common? They all want to profit from producing or owning fleets of autonomous vehicles. As soon as driverless four-wheelers hit the road, these jobs are never coming back. We need to develop solutions to robot-induced job loss within the next two decades or else our working class will suffer huge losses in wealth, further fueling income inequality.
You have a right to be afraid of the impending robot future, but don’t panic. There’s still much we can do to recover from a transitioning workforce. Let me tell you about this “pie-in-the-sky” idea called universal basic income. If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably because Elon Musk is a proponent of it and has talked about it in interviews. The idea is that everyone gets paid regardless of whether they work or not. It won’t be enough to go on a ski trip to Aspen, but it will be enough to keep you afloat while you look for a new job. Unlike unemployment benefits or welfare, this money comes without strings attached. This approach alone, however, cannot solve the problems of robots taking workers’ jobs and it does require raising taxes or allocating funds from elsewhere.
If we’re going to keep workers from suffering from a robot workforce takeover, then we have to address current problems. We need welfare reform and stronger workers' rights. We need to put pressure on our representatives and vote out ones that do not care about these issues.
We also need to address Silicon Valley’s responsibility in providing a smooth transition. The Guardian, in writing about the merits of a basic income, noted that while Silicon Valley giants (like Elon Musk) call for a basic income, they’re also pushing for lower corporate taxes. This suggests that tech companies are hoping government will provide a living wage for their workers so they can maximize profits. This means that workers will work for less and pay more in taxes (Trump’s tax bill ring a bell?).
Technology may taketh, but it giveth if we retrain and bequeath new skills to workers. Future technology will undoubtedly create jobs in areas that could not be possible today. Clearly, governments should invest in retraining those who will be out of a job for these new types of work. The reports are out there, it's no secret who will lose when the robots show up for work. If we start now, we can prepare workers to take jobs in these new sectors. Remember, Silicon Valley’s success is entirely a result of a brand-new technology called the Internet. We should train our workers to learn a web development stack instead of how to input data into an Excel spreadsheet.
What if you’re still into old fashioned non-techie work? Training in a steadier vocational job will give you greater job security because robots can’t do things like plumbing and HVAC repair. These jobs are not easily automated and require only a modest amount of training to do. You’ll likely be retired before that happens, anyway.
If you’re angry that I’m trying to spin this job loss situation then just hear me out. Unless you plan to start an anti-robot revolution, you'll have to accept the coming reality. You cannot stop the march of the robots and in fact, the robots are already here. That said, we should remember the most important reason for having them around: robots exist to improve our lives.
Robots should do the things we don’t want to do. They should pick the fields, they should do the dishes, they should make our beds and put rivets in a car shell. In the grand scheme of things, humans don’t live a very long time, so why should we choose to let the C3POs of the world make our lives miserable? Robots should make life easier, and we shouldn’t have to see our paycheck decrease in the process, nor our quality of life. In twenty years when someone exclaims, “That robot took my job!” Let’s ensure it’s a celebratory cry and not a tearful one.