Surviving Our Robotic Future

Robots don't take coffee breaks, or vacations or holidays, and they never get sick. It's great for employers. Not so good for employees.

In the last few weeks books, articles, a TV series, talk shows and even a theatrical film have featured Robots everywhere in our lives.

While some portrayals are funny, what isn't so funny is the realization that the future is close to reality, a reality when jobs disappear or, as may be the case, people are just not qualified to take part in a very different economy in which the workplace demands skills out of reach.

According to a recent study by Oxford Research reported in the MIT Technology Review, we are witnessing "Tectonic Shifts in Employment (where) information technology is reducing the need for certain jobs faster than new ones are being created."

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School of Management and Andrew McAfee, its principal research scientist, concluded, "nearly half of all jobs are vulnerable to machines -- to applications using information technology."

That machines may someday reduce the size of the workforce and require a different skill set is not a new concern. The disruptions are coming sooner, and we more urgently need to determine what we can do and what the role for government should be to make the transition somewhat less difficult.

Perhaps that is the reason as Paul Salmon of PBS reported two years ago, "activists (in Switzerland) dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen. Their cause? A guarantee that every citizen get a yearly income of 30,000 Swiss francs, about $34,000, whether they work or not."

The concern was that "inequality" would negatively impact the economic recovery with everyone looking to a jobless future with more and more people out of work, more unemployment among our young, and less opportunity to participate in the new knowledge economy. Their partial solution: More, not less, government will be needed.

There are those who argue that every structural shift, like the evolution of the post industrial age; an economy followed by the information economy will eventually result in new jobs -- jobs we've never heard of, like Data Analyst before there was such a thing as Big Data. Others are more pessimistic and argue, like Jeremy Rifkin author of The End of the Job, that, "There will never be enough jobs in the knowledge sector of America or any country to accommodate the millions and millions of people let go in the traditional industrial sectors, blue- and white-collar manufacturing and service."

One thing seems sure. As Bloomberg Business Week put it:

There's no guarantee of a smooth transition. In the short term at least, the economy is probably in for what John Maynard Keynes called a "phase of maladjustment" as workers struggle to catch up to technological changes. That could mean depressed wages, widening inequality, increased unemployment and deepening social problems.

I personally remain optimistic, particularly if we aggressively retrain our young with the so-called new thinking skills and the entrepreneurial know-how to reinvent ourselves to keep pace with the constant shift in work requirements. But even the Data Analysts' profession, says McKinsey and Company, will be replaceable. Any job that is even remotely repetitive will be automated. Yes, new jobs will appear but each new opportunity will demand new, advanced skills.

The net net is that the coming transition will be slow and painful, and may require some very new and bold thinking about the role of government and the increasing need for more non-profits. For those caught in the middle, the shift to another life stage is similar to those facing retirement.

In Canada, two Mayors came to the conclusion that it was time to explore the idea of "guaranteed income pilot programs" in which everyone gets the same amount of basic income; to provide essential material needs that money can help address. Other around the world have talked about similar ideas.

According Derek Thompson of The Atlantic Magazine, "The post-work society ... in many ways ... reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century--the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness."

Thompson talks about a National policy to help "create more and more ambitious community centers or other public spaces where residents can meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize."

He says the most common effects of unemployment are loneliness, and "the hollowing-out of community pride."

Citing Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, "sees the next wave of automation returning us to an age of craftsmanship and artistry... (and) freeing many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests--to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose."

The jobless future will be extremely difficult for most of us since we are conditioned to work. Our sense of self worth depends on having a job. But slowly, maybe-just maybe-we can adjust if we are given a basic payment to do non-commercial social work, help develop the non-profit sector and begin to develop our human capacity for life as the creative species we can be.