Jobs in the Age of Automation Part II

(Part I reviewed key studies, trends, observations, and scenarios on jobs and technological unemployment, with comments on the possible political and social implications ahead. This Part II is an annotated review of proposed solutions to handle this coming tsunami of mass scale human redundancy.)

How to manage the change

Technological change is here to stay because we like tinkering with things, to find what is easier, more convenient, cheaper, faster, stronger, more fun, and more profitable. Given our natural urge to tinker, and if this tinkering is leading to technological change that is disrupting the social fabric of our communities, it makes sense to review the ideas on preventing or at least reducing the undesirable impacts. Here below is a review of some of these ideas .

Education and Re-training

This is the most common and logical solution: people need to have the skills that are in demand to get a job or to stay employed. If demand for a certain skill is increasing (or decreasing), it is sensible to adjust schooling and training accordingly. But this is easier said than done especially when it comes to the skills that the age of automation demands.

Human skills most in demand In the age of automation and intelligent machines will be those that machines and algorithms cannot replicate. These are empathy/compassion, collaboration/cooperation, creativity and curiosity. These are the new 4Cs of education for the future and mandatory additions to the traditional 3Rs of reading, writing and math. One could also add “coding” as a fifth C, at least until the algorithms learn to write code well enough to eliminate the need for human coders. 

The 4Cs are not the skills that traditional education systems give to students (except in a handful of places like schools in Finland). 

Take creativity and curiosity. Children are naturally curious and creative. Traditional schooling blunts these natural tendencies. Encouraged to fit in, the kids learn to think alike, feel alike, dress alike and have similar expectations from the future. Their creativity and curiosity are drowned in a sea of standardized tests, and curricula. Those kids who preserve their curiosity and creativity are often considered eccentric, at best, or weird. Some become artists which makes their “weirdness” more acceptable. 

The most difficult learning is unlearning what is already learned. How do you teach a standardized adult mind creativity, and curiosity? Similar concerns surround the other skills that the age of automation will need. Learning collaboration is difficult when you need to unlearn competition. Compassion is difficult to learn as well when you learned self-interest has been prime in your upbringing, and empathy was often seen as a weakness.

To get the young people learn the skills they will need in their adult life, there will need to be a considerable redesign of existing education systems. That needs political commitment, and lots of money which are in short supply in the world of education. Society will also need to change the way it view teachers: seeing them not as the lowest paid and least respected people but well paid, well trained and highly respected.

Such an overhaul has been done in Finland: in Finnish schools, kids are not loaded with homework, and they are not lectured at. They do not study in a rigid program of redefined subjects. They engage in discussions, learn from each other as much as their teacher, who is in the role of a guide rather than lecturer. If they get curious about something they can spend time looking into it, learning it, perhaps even experiment with it if it is an activity. Their teachers are selected from the top 10% of the country’s college graduates and have a masters degree in education. Compare this to another developed country, such as the US, where teachers are mostly from the bottom fourth of college graduates, are usually people who could not find another (better) job, and they start teaching after merely a few weeks of training. 

The exponential speed of technological change of today, creates an urgency for appropriate schooling for kids. A similar urgency also exists for retraining and up-skilling those entering the job market as well as the adults who are in their prime working years, as an educator argues. This effort will need closer collaboration between education institutions and businesses. This kind of collaboration has been in practice for decades in countries like Germany (articles on this here and here) providing useful lessons. 

The sooner governments, education institutions, businesses and communities study and learn from these examples of better preparation and skilling of young people for the fast changing workplace, the sooner we will create the conditions in which we have a chance of surviving the age automation with fewer casualties and much less unfairness. 

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

UBI is also known as guaranteed basic income (GBI) or basic income guarantee(BIG). It is an idea gaining traction and enjoying a growing movement supported by many Millennials as well as people from other age groups. It has been central to the political platform of a US presidential candidate. 

The  Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) traces some form of this idea back to the 1500s. The idea enjoyed interest in the 1960s and 1970s with large scale experiments of it in Canada and support of the conservative US president (Nixon). In the 1980s and 1990s the idea was largely dormant. It re-emerged recently, as a possible solution to the social and economic effects of technological unemployment.

BIEN defines UBI as “income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.” It is different from existing welfare programs because UBI “is paid to individuals rather than households; it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources; and, it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.” It is a form of wealth distribution, and as such it raises a number of practical and political questions

First the idea would need allocation of a large chunk of national coffers. A Business Insider article in 2013 predicted the cost at $2.14 trillion for the US adult population of 179 million adults (or about 11.1% of the US gross domestic product). Who will underwrite this allocation? Which government will take the political risk? Which private sector entities will bother? 

One could argue that the automation billionaires should be responsible for this cost because much of their billions are the wages and salaries they are no longer paying to the workers they replaced with machines and algorithms. It would be a redistribution of the wealth that robots are creating for benefit of the greater society. But who will persuade these business people to share the bounty? Will it be through higher taxation or voluntary programs? If it is voluntary, who will ensure equity of distribution in a country or the world? If taxation is the route, which politician will dare to “tax the rich to give to the poor”? Can the business world be persuaded – because it needs consumers to stay in business and unemployed people do not have disposable incomes? The private sector persuasion may come from within because a number of Silicon Valley billionaires are among the most vocal supporters of UBI. 

Those who believe people should not get free money (without working for it) find UBI unacceptable. Other political conservatives smell “socialism” in the idea even though socialist countries provided free, or near free, social services but never income without work. Furthermore, all countries in which there was or an experiment with UBI are market-based capitalist economies, not socialists. This list of experimenters includes Canada (ran an experiment 1968 to 1980), Finland (planned test 2017-19), and Oakland California by the start-up incubator Y Combinator (planed to test in 2017). A more comprehensive list of UBI experiments is available from BIEN.

UBI may be a way to handle technological unemployment, especially during the years of social and economic  disruptions while technology driven new demand starts creating new jobs in large numbers that respond to the number of unemployed. UBI may also be a way to halt or even reverse the growing worldwide inequality which is undoing the good done by various social programs in many countries. 

Adaptive automation 

Adaptive automation is an approach to technology development. In this approach, rather than us developing skills to adapt to the machines we design them with the central goal of empowering and strengthen people. And not just a handful of people but people at large. Nicholas Carr, the author referenced earlier, is a vocal proponent. 

The idea is based on the work of scholars such as David Kaber, focusing on ergonomics and engineering that puts human beings at the center of innovation and starts with the premise of supplementing humans rather than supplanting them. Automation technology developed with this approach suits the human, provides direct sensory feedback to the humans rather than around or beyond them, and increases human capacity instead of reducing it. Carr suggests that human needs should be part of the engineering loop and software engineers should be trained in ergonomics (I would add humanities also) so that technology can return to its historical role of creating progress for the good of society and the people instead of at their expense. 

This approach is getting broader attention through initiatives such as #Maketechhuman and the Future of Life Institute. The first is launched by Nokia in partnership with Wired magazine and aims to generate global discourse about the impact of technology on humanity. The initiative produces publications, discussion meetings and podcasts. The Future of Life Institute is advised by actors (Alan Alda, Morgan Freeman), scholars (Eric Brynjolfsson), and entrepreneurs (Elon Musk) among others. Its web site describes the Institute’s aim as “safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.” 

A 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review adds further flesh to the idea of machines that complement and augment humans. It identifies five specific pathways through which such augmentation can occur. The pathways have a catchy labels: step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly and step forward. The “step aside” pathway, for example, involves letting automation take care of the mechanical while the human contributes human skills that cannot be replicated by a machine such as empathy, intuition, taste, humor and the like. Similarly, the “step narrowly” path involves “finding a specialty within your profession that wouldn’t be economical to automate.” HBR articles are behind a hefty paywall but readers get three free articles per month and I would recommend that you use one of your free articles for this piece.

Adaptive automation can help us refine and redefine our automated, digital future in which humankind is at the center. The idea needs to seep into how software engineers and other technologists are educated, where government research and development funding goes, and into the conscience of inventors and investors to routinely ask themselves if what they are inventing or investing in would help or hinder human wellbeing.

Redefining work 

The idea here is to take a good look at the concept of “work” and its personal and social manifestations. I thought of this idea while writing the Prologue to this content. 

Over the centuries, working for an income has become central to our lives and in our societies. We associate work with self-value and our value in society. For most of us education is much less about learning a subject of interest but more about getting a job based on the degree earned. In addition to an income, work gives people a purpose, a daily schedule, anchoring projects, accomplishments to be had, as well as a social life based on the workplace. 

We take work related “failures” as personal failures. Getting our first job and earning our own living are our graduation into adulthood. We associate not working with being unworthy. Many consider being on some sort of social welfare “low status.”

How work achieved this level of acceptance and importance in our lives is somewhat of a mystery given that most working people really dislike their work. One of the most thoughtful writings on this topic is by the late Professor Hielbroner whose class I had the privilege of taking as a PhD student in the New School for Social Research. In his 1985 paper for the Library of Congress, “The Act of Work,” Heilbroner observes how subordination through work was the backbone of the capitalist system and asks if, in the robot-based economy, humanity might submit to work for social benefit rather than the benefit of the few. (This book is no longer in print and not digitally available. But if you have access to a local public library or university library, it can be borrowed through the interlibrary loan system.)

At present, most work is what anthropologist and social activist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” – jobs that people hate but have to do to feed themselves and their family, or afford whatever it is that they value. Work makes us give up our most valuable possession: our time. And we often worry about and have legal frameworks for the “right to work” or “right to decent jobs” but not many of us talk about the right not to work.    

There is a strange silver lining in the age of automation: it is forcing us to re-think who we are and what is important. Is it work, freedom, a fulfilled life, money, power, or whatever it is that makes you happy? In this re-think we might find other ways to take care of our needs. May be we decide to recast the social contract so that we collectively own the machines, they do the work and generate a basic income for us and we become free from slaving in a company, a bureaucracy or whatever it is that usurped your time in return for a living. 

Re-Thinking the economic model

While we are re-casting and redefining, we may as well put a place holder for a rethink of the economic model since it is no longer working for the majority. Alternative economic models have been written about for centuries and by brilliant people with whom I will not pretend to compete hence the place holder approach here. 

I would hope that a collective re-think of the economic model would expose the craziness of the constant growth imperative that drives all economies in the world, even those centrally planned. But constant growth is unnatural. We confuse constant change and improvement with growth at the expense of people, communities, and the environment. Eventually growth takes over fairness, honesty, integrity and ethics and becomes immoral.

Can we learn to to say “enough” to constant growth and accept that, as in nature, consumption and production processes also mature and die, and should not be artificially kept growing at all cost. Better yet, this re-think of the economic model might remind us all that the original purpose of business was service: producing the goods that the society needs, not to make more money than the previous quarter. 

Worker owned automation 

I like this path especially because I like the idea of us owning our newest means of production: the robots. A vocal proponent of this idea is the Harvard economist Richard Freeman. In this article on robots and jobs, Freeman says: 

If we owned our replacements, we would have our current earnings and our time freed from labor to spend as we wished—playing computer games, drinking tea in the garden, engaging in wild orgies, or seeking other productive activity, possibly at lower wages. We would be better off. If other persons owned our replacement robots, we would be jobless and searching for new work at lower pay while the owners of the robots would reap the pay/marginal product from the machines that took our jobs. The distribution of income would shift from us toward the owners of capital. They would be better off. We would be worse off.

Freeman suggests several ways through which workers can become owners of their replacements: be paid in stock options for the company that is automating jobs, benefit through the employee ownership trust fund the company creates, via a profit sharing process, or through employee stock purchase plans. A nick in the shiny armor of this approach is that the workers would need to be employed still and sufficiently organized to get one of these outcomes. But what about those who are already in the gig economy and do not belong to a company from which they could demand things?

Concluding thoughts

Automation makes an attractive promise: to allow us more time to do the enjoyable parts of a job or free us completely from work to do what we want to do. There is a feel-good aspect to this promise. But this feeling dissipates upon recalling the potential human and social costs. In return for a few who would get to focus on the fun parts of their work we may have to sacrifice millions who become redundant and indigent. 

Those directly involved in and drawing benefit from automation technologies (software engineers, investors in automated technologies and owners of these technologies) are giddy and excited about how software and robotics will bring us an unprecedented abundance of time, leisure, longevity and super human abilities. I hope this is true. Oddly, this promise reminds me of those tv ads for medications: it will cure your ailment but may give you a million side effects and a heart attack!

It may be true that automation, AI and other digital technologies will generate new jobs. After all there were no social media managers thirty years ago. But while we wait for the new jobs to emerge and for people to get ready for them, what happens to those who are already automated out of their livelihoods, do not have access to re-training or not re-trainable? This bothers me a lot.

I am also concerned about the young people, wondering how many of them will get to have a “career,” get to maintain a decent standard of living, get to retire from a job. Many young people today are getting used to the idea of a “gig economy,” moving from one short-term temporary job to another, without a sense of belonging, and without benefits. Do the giddy automation billionaires think about these young people and wonder what kind of people they will become 30 years from now after a lifetime of job insecurity? What kind of society will that be? 

The political implications of this change is another cause for concern. With growing inequality, and benefits of automation concentrating in the hands of a very few, lots of people are living economically precarious lives like serfs did in feudal times. The feudalism of the 21st century is a very small elite living longer and healthier lives, holding practically all the money and power, living in gated communities with the rest of us outside the gates, with shortened life expectancies (due to environmental and climatic changes) and keeping busy with our artisanal cheese making and basket weaving. Will we even think about ideas that moved us before like democracy and freedom? Will we increasingly accept authoritarian rule in return for some sense of promised security?

We all that the technological changes are here to stay just like they did in the past. We not only cannot make them go away but we actually want them to stay because we have come to appreciate their convenience-creating, life-saving aspects. I want to see more blind people seeing for the first time thanks to nanotechnology and biotechnology. I want veterans who lost a leg or an arm or both to get life-like prostheses so they can run or play basketball or just be self-sufficient. I want an end to child labor and will take the robot if it means an 8 year old will not be exposed to chemicals and abusive bosses, but is instead in school, learning. I love instant access to all the knowledge of humanity along with the algorithm to help me sort through, search through and make new sense through it. I especially love the convenience of being able to look up any word while reading an e-book or to have a page in Chinese or Swahili automatically translated into a language that I understand. We want technology that helps us have a better life.

Historically progress brought good things to society at large. Electricity made life better for millions so did a sewage system that reduced sickness. But today’s progress through automation is good for the few. 

Something I learned from being a musician is that just because you can do something does not mean you should do it. You may have the capacity to play a piece much faster but that will not make the piece better. When the music is not better, what you do is just acrobatics. In the same way, just because the new technologies promise bigger, better, faster, cheaper does not mean we jump to them at the expense of a healthy society. Just because it is becoming technologically possible to replace all workers with machines does not mean it is the right thing to do. Sometimes self-control is the best path. And erring on the side of a more caring society, is a good error to make 

There are many who fear automation and robots and the rest. But I believe they fear the wrong thing. The enemy is not the machine or the algorithm. The enemy is our choices of how we innovate, what we innovate, and whether our innovations are guided by fundamental questions like “will this help or harm people?” 

We have serious decisions to make with respect to how we understand work, income, growth, business, society, government, welfare and the pursuit of happiness. We better get smarter fast about these choices if we want a life of abundance that is framed by dignity for ourselves and for our fellow humans.

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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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