Robot Revolution
The Beginning of the End of Work

Robots and AI are already putting scores of Americans out of work and exacerbating inequality. As automation increases, what can we do to mitigate the damage?

Published on: March 19, 2018
Diane Francis is the author of ten books and on the faculty at Singularity University. She is editor-at-large at the National Post.
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  • AnonymoussSoldier

    Doesn’t explain the pay raise to productivity gap, and also does not account for the very clear outsourcing of jobs, that is not taken by robots but rather from a guy named, say, Anderson and given to a guy named Wang or Ramos. This is a sort of corporate propaganda and apologetics. No shortage of blue-collar work to be done, particularly looking at American infrastructure, as well as the number of jobs that have been outsourced, not automated. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ee668d077de3d57aee99e60e804eeb6af53bc812739b90dfb3efcd7c3a35f505.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/78ffd99ecdf4f5e3addfabca11553723b16d12f1c13187ec55b32b6f69bdc02b.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3f2ce4c29b735b486642ae62a761bf3c42dceb766a514f3f858780818fb9bdfd.jpg

  • Loader2000

    The last paragraph had it at least partly correct. UBI by itself would be a disaster; a disaster to human dignity, a disaster to family culture, a universal disaster. All humans (and all other life forms) have built in programming to obtain their basic needs with the least amount of work. Yet most humans also have built in programming to do meaningful work and contribute to society, somehow. In the absence of meaningful work, there is depression, despondency, hopelessness and drug addiction. In nature, these two balance each other nicely. UBI is the death of this balance. This seems to be so self evident to anyone with any amount of common sense who has studied human nature, that it is appalling to me that an intelligent person would suggest UBI as a solution in and of itself. When the Romans began handing out bread (harvested by slaves, the robot equivalents that era, at least in an economic sense) to the masses of Rome to keep them pacified, those masses turned to the arena and blood-sport as their society descended into decadent oblivion. What path are we going to take?

    • FutureIsNow

      What path? VR oblivion.

      • Matt B

        Aka Fallout 4, available on XBox One

  • FriendlyGoat

    Well, it won’t mitigate the damage to people whose jobs evaporate, but we CAN pass tax reform which encourages companies to purchase the most human-replacing automation possible and at the earliest possible time. Just did it.

    • Micah718

      How dare we make the economy more productive???

  • Joe Eagar

    Nothing says we have to do what the tech sector wants. I’ve been saying for a year now that conversations on technology are starting to sound a lot like human sacrifice. . .

  • Fat_Man

    This article is yet another in a long line of explanations why the no growth years from 2009 to 2016 were not Obama’s fault. Unfortunately, it has a problem with the real world:

    “The Best Time Ever to Look for a Job: Americans enjoy a historic high in employment openings.” By James Freeman on March 19, 2018

    “On Friday the Labor Department released its latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, better known as the “Jolts” report. The feds reported a remarkable finding about the historic eagerness of businesses to hire. “On the last business day of January, the job openings level increased to a series high of 6.3 million,” noted the government. ”

    ” … the largest number of available positions ever recorded wasn’t the only good news. … Ron Temple of Lazard Asset Management: The JOLTS data reaffirms our expectation for strength in the US economy and labor market through the rest of 2018. With a record high 6.3 million job openings, or 4.1% of all positions, we believe employers are going to have to pay up to fill the openings, leading to stronger wage growth and sustained consumer spending increases. If we take this together with the recent news that 1.3 million people joined the labor force in the first two months of the year, our confidence in ongoing economic growth and our expectation for labor market strength are reaffirmed.”

    “Odd as it sounds, there’s even more good news out of Washington. Following a February employment report showing more than 800,000 people joining the U.S. labor force, along comes another strong signal that Americans are moving off government assistance and into the workplace.

    The Department of Agriculture reports that fewer people are using food stamps”

  • Bruno_Behrend

    A UBI is the only real answer (assuming the problem gets as big as they say it will).

    As for the weak argument from the Chinese Billionaire, the solution is simple. To receive a UBI, one must work at least 20 hrs a week at a real job.

    Where are all those jobs going to come from?

    It’s simple. Once you have a UBI, you no longer need a minimum wage, allowing for the creation of millions and millions of jobs for humans to do – most of which will be helping each other.

    • Matt B

      I’m thinking along the same lines. My son is graduating next year with a dual degree in Psychology and Outdoor Recreation. This summer he’ll be in the backcountry of Alaska with at-risk kids from native communities. That job will be fulfilling and is immune to automation. It’s largely funded through Medicare.

      These helping professions can make a huge difference for the people who can access the services so I have no problem with taxpayers footing the bill. Not everyone is cut out for the mental health field, but I can imagine other essential/ beneficial services that need human connection.

      People need a vocation, and with automation undercutting the value of labor I don’t see any way the private sector will solve this.

  • hoosier1234

    “During that time up to 670,000 jobs were erased, with no new jobs to replace them.”

    What good will come of AI and robots if there are no jobs and no money for people to buy the products they make?

  • mark abrams

    “The transition in the United States from farm to city took generations
    and was grueling, scarred by social disruption, mass underemployment,
    unrest, sweatshops, urban slums, forced urbanization, poverty, crime,
    worker struggles, and enormous socioeconomic upheaval and strife.” is a weird way to describe a time when:
    The transition in the United States from farm to city took generations during which the life span and wealth of average Americans increased rapidly. Cities grew, poverty declined (right up until federal great society programs started to cannibalize the productive to support the unproductive), crime declined and the country thrived, as demonstrated by population increases exclusive of immigration.

  • Q46

    More ridiculous, uninformed drivel predicting the end of times.

    Robots have been taking over jobs for over 200 years. They (tractors, seed drills, combined harvesters, etc) ‘took over’ 98% of agricultural jobs; computers have destroyed every job making typewriters, jobs in typing pools, 99% of jobs in accounts departments; robots in telephone exchanges have destroyed all jobs for switchboard operators.

    The list is very long, yet… there are now more jobs… and growing… in every economy despite there being many more people and many more robots aka machines.

    The claim that robots are putting Americans out of work ignores history. Jobs change – and this is because of technological advance and market disruptive innovation. Jobs being destroyed equals economic and social advance. The total number of jobs is determined by aggregate economic activity, so as this increases so do jobs numbers.

    If you want to see a society where everyone is doing the same jobs their ancestors were, with the same number of jobs as ever, go look at a poor, undeveloped Country.

    Currently the USA unemployment rate is below 4% which in effect means full employment as there are always some unemployable, some moving between jobs.

  • MarkM

    I generally expect better from the American Interest than this article. The fact of the matter is we’ve heard this argument re-emerge every few decades and it’s always been wrong. Our modern fear that robots/AI/automation will steal all the jobs fits a classic script. Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I cited the same fear when she denied an English inventor named William Lee a patent for an automated knitting contraption. Did you know that Keynes predicted that automation would result in a 15 hours/week work week back in the 1930s? In 1964, a group of high-profile economists and sciences warned President Lyndon Johnson of a “cybernation revolution” that would result in massive unemployment. Johnson’s labor secretary had recently commented that new machines had “skills equivalent to a high school diploma” (though then, and now, machines have trouble doing simple things like recognizing objects in photos or packing a box), and the economists were worried that machines would soon take over service industry jobs.

    Just because work can be automated does not necessarily mean that it will be. Manual car washes still exist. It may well be that the true middle class in the future is made up of the plumbers and other skilled tradesmen and women who are paid to provide a service directly to the consumer and/or in various parts of the construction industry. Sometimes, automation can actually both increase the number of workers in a sector and increase the wages of those workers. Contrary to Queen Elizabeth’s fears, by the end of the 19th century, there were four times as many factory weavers as there had been in 1830, according James Bessen, the author of “Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth.” Those same weavers at the famous Lowell factory earned more than twice what they earned per hour in 1830.

    Incidentally, in 2016, McKinsey came to a very different conclusion than that reached by the Oxford University researchers. After analyzing 830 occupations, McKinsey concluded that just 5% of them could be completely automated. While almost every occupation that McKinsey looked at had some aspect that could be automated, including 25% of the tasks inside of a CEO job, very few jobs could be entirely automated. As a result, McKinsey’s conclusion was not that machines will take all of these jobs, but rather, more occupations will change than will be automated away. Our CEO may have more time for coaching, for developing his executives, for meeting with and listening to customers if he or she is spending less time analyzing reports.

    Final note — Technology is also enabling solo innovators to succeed and disrupt the status quo. I expect to see more disruption and apparent chaos as time goes on.

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  • Dantes

    The answer is obvious and terrifying. The government will hire more people, and they in turn will impose more oversight and regulation on our private lives than ever before seen in history. Tyranny of the do-gooders.

  • Stephen

    “The study, not replicated since, proves that work itself is shrinking.”

    The study, not replicated since, proves…Heh. This captures well social science standards.

  • Jeff77450

    I’m a complete layman on this topic. (Disclaimer: having retired from one career with a pension and being fully-vested & eligible to retire from a second, whatever threat to future employment robotics might pose is, to me, an abstraction). Having grown up on a “healthy” diet of science fiction I’m excited about the possibilities that come with the advancements in robotics—but I won’t hold my breath. At 59 I’m still waiting on the practical, scalable, mass-producible, affordable flying-car & jet-pack that we were teased with 50+ years ago. 🙂

  • DennisP

    it’s clear that the issue of automation dramatically reducing the number of jobs needs serious and informed discussion – unfortunately this article doesn’t help further that dialogue. The author’s dismissal of the historical transformation of the U.S economy from a 95% subsistence agriculture basis to a 95% non-agriculture basis over the past 150 years just shows how unserious the author comments are. Since the hunter gathers were transformed to subsistence agriculture thousands of years ago this change in the economic basis of U.S society could have been catastrophic, – yet our economy and society not only survived the transition, it has thrived. That it was extremely difficult and disruptive is absolutely true – but the bigger truth is that it was a successful transition in the end. Certainly the technical automation transformation that we are going through today will not be as significant – and we can muddle through somehow. The big danger, of course, is that all the people who think they know what’s going on and who control the government will take action that is likely the exact opposite of whatever would be helpful and insure that this time it will be a catastrophe. Thank goodness that we have some term limits!

  • Rifleman

    Well here we go again. From the days of free labor aka slavery to the days of indentured labor aka illegal migrants working for pittance our Corporate world comes up with Robots, the new slave who wants not and needs not but inadvertently destroys the liberties and freedoms of those it serves.

  • PierrePendre

    Capitalism survives because for all the talk of the 1% versus the rest, it produces many more winners than losers. If AI and robotisation combine to reverse that ratio or create a real 1% versus the rest, capitalism will cease to exist. A population in which the vast majority are losers will force government to nationalise the economy in order to take political control of the consequences of the redundancy of most workers and to redistribute the vast and unacceptable wealth of the technology companies. If UBI is part of the solution and there is no middle class left to finance it, the money will have to come from technology profits. Government doesn’t depend on the taxes paid by Silicon Valley, it depends on the taxes paid by the middle classes. If technology destroys the middle class, it will have to replace it as the source of government finance. Like climate change, the destruction of work is not going to happen in a rush it will take place gradually and the political economy will take account of the adverse effects of change on an ad hoc basis as problems arise. It is during this process that capitalism itself will delegitimise itself. The electoral process will do the rest as political parties adapt to public pressure and the source of their votes. Marx foresaw a society in which all the wealth was concentrated in a few hands and the vast majority of the population were impoverished. How though do the rich stay rich if no one can afford to buy their products or services as Henry Ford saw when he said pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. Concentration of all the wealth in the hands of an oligarchy ultimately destroys the oligarchy, at least in a democracy. There will no doubt be huge social problems arising from the replacement of work by UBI which will have to be set at a high level to be effective. Many millions of people will lack the imagination to fill a day in which there is no work as its focus. Idle hands and all that. Again, the government will have to step in with programs to keep them occupied and quiescent. How ironic that science which has made our present prosperity possible may not only destroy it but in doing so prove the Marxist doctrine of communism to have been correct.

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