Humans Need Not Apply
Scientific advancement, and particularly mechanization, has been traditionally met with fierce resistance. Centuries before the advent of Amazon Echo, Twitterbots, and e-commerce, the Industrial Revolution produced one of the first instances of automation: the fabric industry’s mechanized looms and sewing machines. In protest of the changes brought about by this new equipment, a coalition of English textile workers – who were known as “Luddites” – rioted, smashed factory equipment, and even clashed with the British army numerous times.
Pessimistic attitudes towards changes in industrial practices and equipment are extant: look no further than the international rise of anti-globalist sentiments over the last few years. In the United States presidential election of 2016, both major-party candidates vocally opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership due to a groundswell of public opposition towards it. It is easy to blame this phenomenon on a struggling, uneducated middle class’s irrational hatred of change. Instead, consider how this widespread distrust of economic openness closely parallels Luddism – by the same token, imagine how the pattern may foreshadow the middle class’s response in the coming decades to the increasing influence of automation.
Economists already cite the sluggishness of middle-skill job growth — relative to low and high-skill job growth — as an indication of automation’s coming impact. Many high-skill jobs cannot yet be performed by machines; likewise, hiring low-skill workers is often cheaper than utilizing robots. Middle-skill jobs, on the other hand, are most vulnerable. Yet, the long-term impact of this trend is uncertain.
Some experts theorize that humans will always have jobs to perform, and that those in new professions will simply replace jobs made redundant by advancements in technology. After all, it was the Luddites themselves who first predicted that humans would be replaced, which has yet to happen. More recently, in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes invented the term “technological unemployment,” often misunderstood to mean the increase in the overall level of unemployment caused by technology (whereas it actually refers to temporary unemployment due to technological changes).
Those who think that automation will not make human labor redundant, rather shifting it towards emerging occupations, argue that while robots often reduce employment in one specific area, they ultimately increase efficiency of and therefore demand for the product or service associated with that field. This, in turn, increases demand for jobs which facilitate the task itself, thereby increasing the overall level of employment.
ATMs, for instance, or “automated teller machines,” are now taken for granted in day-to-day life in the developed world. However, these machines have had a severe impact on the livelihoods of human bank tellers since their introduction into the marketplace in the 1960s. Even though there are now fewer bank tellers in the U.S. than there were in the 1980s, there are more bank employees overall. Many who defend automation in its current form explain this phenomenon by looking to lower operating costs of banks, allowing them to open greater numbers of locations and therefore hire more workers overall (though fewer workers per branch).
Others believe automation will eventually make human labor obsolete. One compelling argument for this view is that as automation is applied to itself, the facilitative role of humans will wash away. When robots begin manufacturing robots which can manufacture our goods, there truly will be no need for human factory workers. Market forces will drive the wage rate well below the poverty line, and humans will stop working altogether.
The dystopic vision of this future is one in which corporations and the economic elite control the factors of production, and those factors of production inevitably do not include employees. Therefore, the rest of the population subsists on a barely-livable amount. If most people — of both high and low education backgrounds — are made nearly unemployable whilst not benefitting from the technology that displaces them, widespread civil unrest and a second coming of Luddism could ensue.
Many prominent public figures are unsatisfied with the thought of such a future, and believe that there are policies which would combat this process.Bill Gates, for example, called for “some type of robot tax” in a recent interview with Quartz. Gates elaborates, “You ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat to figure out, ‘OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?’” Mark Cuban and Elon Musk have respectively expressed concerns with automation’s impact on unemployment, in particular how it threatens the safety of humanity.
While many were quick to criticize Gates’s proposal as one that would increase unemployment, few seemed to recognize the underlying intention of such a policy: to safeguard those whose jobs are currently threatened and thereby avoid disruptive forces that cause widespread layoffs in vulnerable areas.
The main obstacles to Gates’s proposal have to do with the legal questions which it begs. To begin with, does Gates’s idea involve ascribing legal personhood to the robots which would be taxed? It certainly seems to imply this. Moreover, how would the distinction between a taxable “robot” and a piece of equipment be made? It seems that many robots are already in use: would these suddenly be subject to taxation and, if so, how would the financial burden of current owners be tackled?
Perhaps a more realistic proposal is that of universal basic income (UBI). For decades, this proposition has been disparaged by politicians, economists, and public figures from both the right and the left. Those on the left, while enticed by the redistributive nature of basic income, worry that it would subvert the existing welfare state, damage the power of labor unions, and favor the middle class over the impoverished. Those on the right fear that basic income would require massive funding from the public sector and would undermine labor incentives.
Yet, the idea also has its enthusiasts from both ends of the political spectrum. In fact, it was libertarian economist Milton Friedman who first proposed a “negative income tax” in 1962. The simplicity of its design, which eliminates much of the bureaucracy that conservatives decry the current welfare system for, is a major benefit of the proposal. More recently, however, Yanis Varoufakis and other prominent economists have proposed a basic income because of automation’s likely impact on the distribution of wealth. His funding proposal for such a mechanism is to tax a portion of each Initial Public Offering (IPO). Regardless of how it is funded, a stipend system to ensure a sustainable income for citizens may be instituted as a precursor for a post-employment world.
This trend, even with a guaranteed income in place, still begs the question: what will happen when humans simply cannot compete in any profession with robots? Consider that eventually, the very production of robots could become fully automated, and then the production of robots which produce robots, and so forth. This cycle, known as the “technological singularity,” will likely leave humans with few viable professions. Under such a circumstance, should economic inequality exist? Presumably, we currently accept inequality on the basis that equal opportunity does not necessarily result in equal outcomes, and that social mobility is a significant part of the human experience. But without the opportunity to improve one’s own condition through hard work and ability (as well as fortune), how can anybody justify their economic privilege? Will inheritance be abolished altogether? Either socio-economic class will cease to exist, or these divisions will become more deeply ingrained in our lives than ever before. ﹥