Andrew Yang: The Man Keeping an Eye on AI

The robots are coming, and while they might not be time-travelling assassins bent on taking lives, they are poised to take something near and dear to a lot of us: our jobs. First, it was manufacturing; next, it will be truckers; and further down the road, white collar jobs like doctors might even be replaced. If you aren't convinced this is an issue, I encourage you to read one of the Online Journals’ other articles, “Humans Need Not Apply,” to get a feel for just how radical of a change we are approaching.

Like climate change, the issue of disruption due to automation is talked about heavily in certain circles yet completely ignored in others. And just like climate change, it needs to be understood and brought to the forefront of our nation’s political debate. One huge barrier to this dialogue is the technological illiteracy of our nation’s leadership: something that was painfully obvious during Zuckerberg’s hearing with the Senate. How can we intelligently and effectively get this conversation started?

Enter Andrew Yang, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful. While his odds of securing office are slim, the discussions he is drumming up merit attention, and have clearly been receiving such, as illustrated when the New York Times covered him in February. Yang’s biggest policies, as reported on his website, are human capitalism, universal basic income (UBI), and medicare for all. Those last two are not all that surprising to see listed on a Democratic candidate’s policy list, but let’s unpack that first priority. Yang indicates that capitalism as a system has worked well for our nation, but it is currently heading down the wrong path. He claims that corporate profit-seeking is becoming the be-all and end-all of the economy; the result will be rapid, unmediated loss of jobs from-- you guessed it-- AI and automation. The alternative, Yang relates, is to focus our economy to “maximize human welfare.”

Now these are pretty broad terms, but the down-to-earth gist of it is that robots and advanced software will replace jobs at a tremendous scale. This will be done in the pursuit of profits that ultimately benefit an increasingly smaller portion of the population, while those that lose their jobs will likely find themselves making losses in terms of personal welfare. In case you think Yang is one crazy man peddling doom and gloom, note that a McKinsey report from December 2017 indicates that our economy could stand to lose as much as a third of all jobs. That’s not just a rise in unemployment; that’s straight-up anarchy.

So what can Yang, and the rest of us, do about an impending societal meltdown? First off, we need to realize that it might not explode in our faces, but we should still be cautious. Jobs which use the new technology that created the job loss often appear in the wake of lost jobs; an example is the appearance of the mechanic for automobiles, which replaced horse drawn carriages. However, there is also evidence that suggests we could be heading for a change in the workforce so profound that people will be left behind and that jobs lost will outnumber jobs created. Thus we should avoid the trap of optimism and recognize the problem at hand, all the while understanding that we can take action to mitigate the change. Notice how I never said the change could be stopped- the necessary technology will be developed and deployed somewhere, if not the US. We can only enact policies to guide development down a path that benefits the greatest number of people, and for those left jobless, we can only do our best to support them.

That last point hopefully makes it clear that we cannot leave everything in the market’s hands and brings me to the next step of action. Eventually, the government will have to step in and help support the unfortunate individuals who cannot adapt. How this assistance best takes shape is up for debate. Yang recognizes the long-term potential of government-provided job training and improved education, but he also notes that in the short term, people will be struggling to make ends meet. That brings in one of his other big policies, UBI. By guaranteeing some monthly income, Yang hopes that those who lose their jobs from increased automation will have a safety net to help get them back on their feet. Surely some Republicans would turn their noses up to these government handouts, so I’ll just end this part by saying policy needs to be constructed, and I’ll leave it up to the politicians to decide which ones.

If there’s one point I want to make clear, above all others, it is that we are not prepared to face the change hurtling at us. With people like Andrew Yang bringing this issue to the national stage, the first step has already been taken. For now, let’s focus on discussion and bringing in people who know what the advancement of technology means for our future. Finally, for any politicians or aspiring politicians reading this, this next point is for you: embrace technology now. If you don’t, it will leave you behind, as will eventually all of your voters.