For years, I’ve been reading and writing about the looming threat of automation, A.I. and new technologies, including their capacity to wipe out traditional jobs. The bulk of this writing was compiled into a book Essays in A.I. released a couple years ago.
When confronted with the looming threat of automation, the traditional response from politicians has been that yes, robots will take our jobs (including white collar jobs in law, accounting and consulting), but that there will be new jobs in industries that do not yet exist. When asked specifically about what the new jobs will be, the typical answer is one word: coding. Nevermind the fact that coders already exist. That’s a question for another day.
The idea that everyone who worked in manufacturing, law, accounting, consulting and other soon-to-be automated industries will become coders is, of course, a fantasy.
The biggest companies of the past, including Ford Motors, hired hundreds of thousands of employees. The biggest companies of today, including Facebook and Google, hire tens of thousands of employees. There are simply less jobs in software engineering than there were in traditional manufacturing. We cannot all become coders.
It is refreshing to hear from a politician like Andrew Yang, who seems to understand the reality we’re facing. Yang, a serial entrepreneur, is running as a Democratic candidate for president of the United States. His platform includes a universal basic income, of $1000 a month to every adult, paid for in part by a value-added-tax (VAT) on technology companies that have the most to gain from robots and A.I.
Labelled a ‘freedom dividend,’ Yang’s Universal Basic Income proposal aims to cover the shortfall that people will experience when transitioning from one job to another. It also aims to address many of the current, dominant social issues in the US, including healthcare costs, drug addiction, incarceration rates and even domestic violence.
It is notable that Yang’s plan would go out to every adult, regardless of their income threshold. The typical argument on UBI is whether it should be means tested, and whether it should go to those who are already receiving government subsidies and/or welfare. Giving it to the rich is controversial, but at the same time, it limits the policy from being a one-sided proposal (supported by only the Democrats – the traditional working class party of America). Yang’s political strategy seems to be to appeal to a wide swath of Republicans and moderates in this way. This is further evidenced by various appearances he has had on traditional right-leaning talk-shows on Fox News and sections of YouTube traditionally representing the alt-right.
Having just qualified for the Democratic debates, it will be interesting to see if Yang can make automation a central topic of debate and conversation in the American presidential system. It is clear that without urgent action, we face an unprecedented crisis of job loss, unemployment, and the resultant crisis of meaning that many will experience. Far from others who remain optimistic about the future of A.I., I have for years pointed out the negative realities that face us, including the fact that A.I. will be able to work for longer hours for no wages (something Yang points out with regards to self-driving trucks).
Along with pressure on wages, there is no evidence that working hours will decrease, despite the productivity gains A.I. will bring. We might all end up stuck in meaningless 9-5 jobs servicing robots, without accruing any of the wealth expected to be gained by this new technology. Instead, the wealth is set to be sucked up by giant tech companies: Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon – all of whom are already working on automating various services (E.g. Google’s efforts to create A.I. and self-driving cars; Amazon’s automation of its warehousing system and delivery organization).
Policies like Yang’s provide fresh hope that we might do something to redirect the profits accrued by A.I. and new technology back into the hands of everyday people. If we can do so, we can help stymie the greatest economic threat humanity has ever faced. If we do nothing – then the future appears very bleak indeed.
So what are his odds?
Yang is currently polling at 1% in various American political polls. He has qualified for the debates, but he lacks the national name recognition of more established candidates, like Biden and Bernie Sanders. At best, however, Yang might be able to make these topics a central part of the conversation, and thereby steer the dialogue of more established politicians towards the idea of a universal basic income.
Any such discussion would have a flow on effect to other Western countries, including the UK and Australia – whom face the same catastrophes and require the same immediacy of action.
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