Ask The Robot Question: Expert, Activist, and Author Comments Vol. II
The purpose of our #AskTheRobotQuestion initiative is to amplify a national conversation about the potential impact of automation and computerization on the future of the American workforce. The founders of Future Left hope to see this issue discussed at the highest level of American politics: the upcoming presidential debate series.
Though we at Future Left may have our own set of policy preferences, we wanted to reach out to a diverse range of outside experts to submit feedback on our initiative. We reached out to numerous futurists, labor activists and organizations, authors, robotics experts, and everything in between. We are deeply grateful for the responses we received and hope that the comments we've gathered will be useful to others seeking to participate in this conversation. We strongly encourage those who wish to do so to use the comments below to enrich their own writing, giving attribution to the appropriate individual or organization.
Additionally, we hope our readers will consider signing our petition on Change.org in order to encourage debate moderators to ask US Presidential Candidates about workforce automation. We're committed to continuing this discussion by distributing a weekly podcast series discussing the comments submitted by the petition's supporters. Be sure to leave a comment on the petition page so we can discuss your views during our next podcast.
We hope our readers find the comments below as insightful and provocative as we did, and that it contributes meaningfully to the ongoing conversation about workforce automation and what it means for the future of working men and women and their families. Be sure to check out the first Q&A here.
All the best,
Founder & Director, Future Left
1. The next presidential administration could potentially last until 2025. Are there any specific disruptions you'd highlight for policymakers to be aware of?
“The most important disruptive force over the next eight years might actually be in energy. Renewable power sources, especially solar, have improved dramatically and become much cheaper over the last decade, and could potentially have a big effect on America's energy systems during the administration of the next president. That will especially be true if, as seems likely, battery and electric car technology also improve. But those developments, while economically important, probably won't have big net employment effects.
“It is harder to predict how much better machine intelligence will get and how quickly, but its role in the workforce will be more dramatic over the long run. Programs that can understand human speech, or even carry on a basic conversation, could transform lots of service work, and threaten millions of jobs. And of course, machine intelligence behind the wheel of a car could eventually wipe out jobs driving trucks, cars and buses. That sort of displacement probably won't occur during the next administration, but the next president will be confronting decisions that will influence how these technological trends play out, and how workers fare as they do.”—Ryan Avent, Author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, & Status in the Twenty-First Century
“I don't like making specific predictions. I think it is best to plan for a range of possible outcomes. If we assume technological displacement is going to continue in employment, policies should be put in place to deal with different future employment scenarios (i.e. levels of unemployment, degrees of polarization etc.).”—John Danaher, Ph.D.; Blogger at Philosophical Disquisitions.
“The greatest challenge we face with emerging technology disruption is in educating the general population on exactly what this new technology is and how it will affect their lives, and preparing them psychology for a world where uncertainty and redundancy will likely be the norm (at least in the short-term).
“Recently, Eric Schmidt (former CEO, Google) and Sebastian Thrun (president of Udacity), co-authored an article in Fortune, where they outlined the many reasons we should stop worrying about AI, relax, and trust them to build the innovative technology of the future. While they praised all of the potentially utopian benefits of unleashing AI into the world, they conveniently glossed over the very real, immediate problems (like job loss and potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities) that we are likely to experience on our way to tech-utopia.
“Policymakers need to hold the creators of disruptive technology responsible for contributing to the solutions to sweeping societal problems their technologies may create to ensure that they develop technology responsibly and equitably. In particular, big tech companies should be investing in educating the general public on innovative tech through classes, advertising, and experiential programs.
“Tech companies and policymakers need to work together to (1) offer practical, real-world education on disruptive technology to the general public, (2) develop psychological and social tools and coping mechanisms for people to express, understand, and process their concerns at what will likely be a blow to our collective and individual “identity and purpose in the world” from emerging technologies, and (3) offer Americans a collective vision that will reach BEYOND the immediate benefits and potential ramifications of disruptive technologies. What is the vision of the future? What should we be, collectively, working towards that will carry us through the painful challenges of these new technologies? This, I believe, is where we currently falter significantly, and it’s part of the reason there is so much populist anger across the world today (“without a vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18).”—Charlie Oliver, Founder & CEO, Served Fresh Media & Tech 2025
“Truck drivers, the largest job in 29 states, and 2nd or 3rd in many others, and the 5+ million who support them will find their jobs at risk. Ryan Petersen, founder of the startup Flexport wrote in TechCrunch, "A convoy of self-driving trucks recently drove across Europe and arrived at the Port of Rotterdam. No technology will automate away more jobs—or drive more economic efficiency—than the driverless truck." Add the jobs threatened by AI in finance and customer service, and robotics in retail, warehouses, and manufacturing and the potential for massive disruptions exist.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“By 2025, a number of tipping points will hit that will change how our world progresses, many of them relating to our use of energy. By 2022-2025, all renewable forms of electricity generation, including solar power, wind, and tidal, will become cheaper to produce than traditional fossil fuel energy sources, without subsidies. That last point is key, because once renewables become the cheapest form of electricity, they will immediately be adopted by fiscal conservatives and capitalists.
“From then on, the debate around adopting renewables will end because investing in them will simply become good business. This will accelerate the world’s shift to renewables far faster than today analysts forecast.
“Similarly, by 2022, electric vehicles will become cheaper than combustion engine vehicles, without subsidies, thereby following the same hockey stick adoption curve that renewables will enjoy. Widespread adoption of self-driving cars will follow, thanks to investments from Silicon Valley and Detroit heavyweights, by the mid-2020s.
“One dark horse disruption I’ll also mention is quantum computing. Advancements in this tech are accelerating faster than expected due to investments from Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. Once a true quantum computer is created, we’ll enter a new era in computing power that will add rocket fuel to advancements across a range of disciplines.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com
2. Economists, thinkers, and beyond have been concerned about technological unemployment for centuries. What, if anything, is different about trends in automation today?
“There are two key differences. One is that flexible intelligence is really humanity's firewall against technological displacement, and machine intelligence is getting better very rapidly. While it will be a very long time until machine intelligence is as good as human intelligence, it might not be that long until it is good enough at enough stuff to displace tens of millions of workers. The second is that humanity is less able to adjust to machine competition today than it was in the past. It is much harder to achieve big improvements in educational attainment than it was in the 19th century, for instance. So we seem to have gotten to a point where machine intelligence is improving faster than we can improve human skill levels.”—Ryan Avent, Author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, & Status in the Twenty-First Century
“Simple: advances in AI (specifically machine learning) converging with advances in robotics and the emergence of the internet of things. This increases the flexibility and scope of technological displacement.”—John Danaher, Ph.D.; Blogger at Philosophical Disquisitions
“The key difference today is that such unemployment is not just affecting the lower classes, but the middle class too. Many of the jobs being taken by AI are not manual jobs; for instance, accountants and journalists are being put out of work.”—Kevin LaGrandeur, Ph.D.; Author of Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves
“This statement (that “this time, it’s different”) is one of the most cited arguments by experts who believe that there will not be massive employment and economic disruption as a result of frontier technology. This time, they say, is no different than previous times. That, of course, is simply not true. We are looking at SEVERAL devastatingly disruptive technologies (AI, VR, autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things, etc.) converging and, according to the developers of this technology, all being “ready for prime time,” in the next 10 years, simultaneously. If we only had to content with just one or two of these technologies, then we might say this time is comparable to other technology innovation periods in history. But with so many invasive technologies emerging simultaneously, not only does this guarantee that we will likely be completely unprepared to deal with the disruption, but because there are so many moving parts (and various technologies), it’s almost impossible to predict with reasonable certainty what our world will be like (and how this tech will change it).”—Charlie Oliver, Founder & CEO, Served Fresh Media & Tech 2025
“Technology is now affecting every sector of the economy, and for the first time not just muscle work but mind work is being replaced. AI, as opposed to previous technology, can now not just be programmed but learn on its own with real potential for accelerated advancement.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“Automation of one kind or another has existed for centuries to millennia, depending on how you define it. What’s different with today’s level of automation is that the increasing power of our computing tech is allowing the automation of thinking-intensive tasks at a much faster rate and breadth than the automation of physical movement.
“The result is that the rate of job and task disruption going forward will always be greater than the rate in which we can create new/replacement jobs to provide work for our growing population. This difference will compound over time leading to severe social unrest unless we revamp our social welfare programs.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com
3. What do you see as the immediate benefits of increased automation and how can we maximize these benefits and ensure that they are felt widely?
“Well, stripping the human labor from production processes is a pretty good way to bring down costs, which means that automation often makes goods and services cheaper and more accessible. Taking and developing photos used to be time consuming and expensive. Now it's cheap and easy, and the huge numbers of people who worked making photographic equipment and chemicals, and actually developing pictures for people, don't have jobs. Automating lots of work in medicine and education should help bring down costs and make those services more accessible. That would be a huge boon to those unable to afford higher education or take time out of work to attend lectures, and for those whose real incomes have been squished by rising health-care costs. It would, however, affect job growth in sectors which have been responsible for a large share of total employment growth over the last few decades. Real income gains from falling costs of goods and services are nice, but these shifts would be even better if those workers whose livelihoods are affected by automation could also find new jobs at good wages. To manage that, governments will need to work harder to prioritize full employment.”—Ryan Avent, Author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, & Status in the Twenty-First Century.
“The benefits are many. Work (paid employment) is unpleasant for many people. According to several surveys, a majority or significant minority of people claim to be unsatisfied and unhappy in what they do. Nevertheless, work remains effectively (de facto if not de jure) compulsory for most people. Freeing us from the yoke of compulsory work is the great promise of automation. But there are two things we need to plan for (I've written about this in my paper 'Will life be worth living in a world without work?'). The first is how we will deal with the distributional problem: if the gains of automation go to the few how can we correct for this? The Universal Basic Income (or some other radical reform to welfare redistribution) seem like the most conservative solutions to this problem. The second problem is the existential one: what will people do when they no longer work? Here, we need to think seriously about what makes life worthwhile -- what brings meaning and fulfilment. There are standard philosophical answers (the Good, the True and the Beautiful) but how convincing will they be in an era of rampant automation?”—John Danaher, Ph.D.; Blogger at Philosophical Disquisitions.
“We cannot let fate or the market decide the way we share in the increased productivity and financial rewards of the "economic winners" who benefit from our country’s resources and institutions.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“On the whole, increased automation will make leading our hectic and complicated lives more effortless, will make the basics of life cheaper, and will democratize access to opportunities to all who search for it.
“We can see these trends everyday now as Google and Apple provide us with free AI virtual assistants to answer our questions, with globalization allowing for the proliferation of big box and dollar stores, and with the ever shrinking costs associated with starting your first business.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com
4. Often universal basic income is mentioned as a primary avenue by which to ensure a certain level of resilience to automation. How do you view this idea? Is it an appropriate response to automation? Is it a sufficient response to automation?
“A universal basic income is probably the inevitable, eventual response to automation, but I'm not sure it's the most natural immediate response. If technology really can do everything, or almost everything, that we need done, then it makes sense to break the link between work and the distribution of purchasing power. A universal basic income does that. But it will be a long time until technology actually can do everything (or almost everything). In the meantime, we don't necessarily want to reduce the incentive to work among productive workers. We should also be aware that society does not yet have good institutions to support large numbers of healthy adults not in work; for now, keeping people in work is probably the best way we have to keep people connected to society. That's another way of saying that a universal basic income might not be a sufficient response to automation, even in the long term. Work is a powerful organizing institution in modern society; when work no longer matters very much, people will probably demand and create alternative systems to encourage people to contribute to society.”—Ryan Avent, Author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, & Status in the Twenty-First Century
“I think UBI is a conservative solution to the problem insofar as it envisages the continuation of capitalism (in some form or other). That should make it more palatable to those on the economic right. But I think it has merits for those on the opposite side of the ideological fence too. Indeed, I think it is a great shame that the moral arguments for the UBI are getting lost in the current debate about automation. UBI is often touted as a practical solution to the problem of automation. But it is much more than that. The UBI can enhance liberty and autonomy, and could help to address the gendered division of labor. I would like to see more of those qualities being emphasized in ongoing conversations about the UBI.”—John Danaher, Ph.D.; Blogger at Philosophical Disquisitions
“It is appropriate, but not sufficient, in part because it is so politically difficult to institute. Other methods should be used too, such as the idea of providing micro-incomes to people by charging companies like Google a fraction of a cent each time they harvest and use people’s data as a salable thing. Right now, for instance, their language translation application uses all kinds of human translators’ work for free.”—Kevin LaGrandeur, Ph.D.; Author of Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves
“A universal basic income can act both as a supplement to work for a long period of transition, and may ultimately be a substitute to work. It may be biggest and the best "new idea" of the 21st century with roots to Thomas Paine, Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon, and Martin Luther King. It is one scenario to deal with a tsunami of labor market disruption. What we need now is to compare UBI to other ideas, and be prepared to secure the economic wellbeing of our families regardless of the way and speed technology develops.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“The UBI will play a big role in alleviating the societal stress that exponentially advancing automation will create. My only concern is how universal will this universal basic income be?
“Sure, developed nations may be able to afford a UBI by reforming their existing social welfare programs, but what about the majority of the world’s population who live in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia? These regions don’t have or can afford the social safety net programs we enjoy, at least not on the level the developed world offers.
“On the whole, we’re living during the transition time between the era of scarcity and the era of abundance. My fear is that if automation does not advance humanity quickly enough to provide abundance to every human on the planet, then the developed world risks being overwhelmed by untold millions of automation and climate refugees.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com
5. Are there other policies beyond basic income that you find compelling that could ease unexpected bouts of structural unemployment brought on by automation?
“In the short run, there are lots of things we ought to be doing which could minimize the disruptive effect of new technologies. It is vital to make sure there is adequate demand, for instance, so that recession conditions don't add to workers' misery. Governments should seize the opportunity to make big, productivity-enhancing public investments when they arise. In response to more prolonged shocks, governments could seek to encourage work sharing: subsidizing worker wages while allowing people to work fewer hours per week.”—Ryan Avent, Author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, & Status in the Twenty-First Century
“Yes. We could reduce the work week, job share, change the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), make benefits portable, have a universal retirement system and health care system, mandate national service for 2 years, create infrastructure and other job programs.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“The universal basic income (UBI) is key to alleviating some of the downsides associated with the extreme levels of structural unemployment future generations will experience. That said, the trick will be how various nations will afford it.
“This is why myself, and the Quantumrun team, actively advocate for the advance of renewable technologies, as well as automation. For example, the United States spends about one trillion dollars on fossil fuels annually to power American buildings and vehicles; if we shifted to renewables and electric cars, the savings the US government can generate can be reinvested into the UBI.
6. What role does education—both primary and higher education—play in a transition to a more automated economy?
“For an individual, education creates skills, relationships, and knowledge. As it relates to jobs, as we now see with lawyers, accountants, and adjunct professors, education has a marginal effect on job creation or sustainability.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“At this point, no profession or course students learn today will exist or remain the same in 10 or even five years’ time. Students will be best served by learning the fundamentals of business, developing a generalist mentality, and developing the soft interpersonal skills that machines won’t be able to match for decades to come.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com
7. The automobile, the internet, and numerous other advances in technology had far reaching effects not just on the US economy, but furthermore on society. What impacts and effects do you think continued advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will have on society?
“Unfortunately, I don't really have short answers to this question. I think advances in robotics and AI will have many other impacts on society, e.g. changing how government decisions are made and implemented, changing our understanding of responsibility and liability.”—John Danaher, Ph.D.; Blogger at Philosophical Disquisitions
“This kind of stuff is notoriously hard to predict, but here’s a shot anyhow. I think it’s very likely that we will begin adding more implantable technology to our bodies and brains, which will alter the way we interact with machines and the rest of society. An example of this that’s already on the horizon is a “neural mesh” that’s been developed by Charles Lieber’s team of nanotechnologists at Harvard. This super-tiny, easy to implant mesh has been injected into the brains of mice to allow their brains to communicate directly with outside digital devices.”—Kevin LaGrandeur, Ph.D.; Author of Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves
“One job we need more of is philosophers. We have the opportunity to go up Maslow's need hierarchy towards self-actualization, and work for money may not be the highest order. We are unprepared for the continual downward pressure on jobs and work. We need our children and grandchildren to lead this discussion, and older Americans (like me) who lived in the 20th century world of work should not try and design the 21st.”—Andrew Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
“Technology doesn’t just disrupt and displace businesses and industries, it also disrupts and displaces people. One example is the Hikikomori in Japan; they are an entire generation of youth (well over one million and growing) who have disengaged with society. Between the ages of 15 and 39, these youths have spent an average of three to seven years in isolation, refusing to leave their homes, watching TV and playing video games all day.
“Most common among men, these Hikikomori are suffering from a disorder caused by a mix of psychological and societal influences that stems from the pressure to excel in a hyper-competitive world and the feeling of inadequacy from their inability to succeed and financially support themselves. This feeling manifests in a shunning of the outside world and social reclusion.
“Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t limited to Japan and there are reports of this behavior manifesting itself throughout the world. And chances are that this phenomenon will only increase over time as our growing population competes for fewer and fewer job opportunities due to automation. Overall, society will need to adjust our values to learn how to lead a fulfilled life without a traditional 9-to-5 job.
“One hopeful counter to this forecast is that once enough people are liberated from dead end or monotonous labor (thanks to automation and the UBI), more people can and will pursue their dreams in the arts and entertainment fields, as well as participate in local community building initiatives—things that contribute to a more abundant and diverse cultural landscape for all.”—David Tal, Publisher & Futurist at Quantumrun.com