For decades, pop culture has been fascinated by robot servants. It always seemed so far off, having a robotic servant to help in our day to day lives. Look at the Jetsons, they needed to have stratosphere, saucer houses before they had a robot maid. It makes it strange to think that we now live in a society where robotics not only exist, but are the norm. I’m not talking about independent, Turing Test beating automata, but increasingly intelligent machines are finding their way into day-to-day life. Self-checkout registers have gone from a novelty to a familiarity in the last decade, and anyone in possession of a smartphone has a basic version of an AI in their pockets (although whether Siri constitutes true AI is a contentious subject). Hell, even my apartment has a machine whose sole purpose is to turn the living room light on when asked. So, while we’re not quite to having Blade Runner-esque replicants in our midst, we already have a fleet of machines that are making our lives a lot more convenient.
But this column isn’t about the wonders of never having to flip a switch or vacuum again, it’s about automation. More and more low-salary jobs traditionally held by humans are being taken over by machines. Self-service checkouts at the supermarket are a visible example of people losing out to robots — especially if Amazon’s completely cashier-free store comes to fruition — but the real threat is to manufacturing or any other job that only requires swift, repetitive work. Blue collar jobs appear to be most at risk, but recent reports also suggest that Wall Street finance jobs may also be at risk from automation. According to Guggenheim fellowship winner Professor Moshe Vardi, job automation could lead to 50% of the world’s population becoming unemployed.
And there appears to be no stopping this trend. Machines tend to be faster, cheaper and they rarely form unions. They don’t need breaks and don’t complain, the only associated cost is upkeep. How can anyone expect a corporation to transition back to humans with all the benefits automation entails? Even if the U.S. had an ultra-progressive, leftist president, that sort of intervention in the free market is something I suspect even Democrats would balk at, not to mention many of these jobs are already overseas where we can’t directly touch them.
What we need to do now is plan for the inevitable rise in unemployment. Job automation is becoming far too ubiquitous to sit back and assume the replaced labor force will find employment in other sectors. In the next decade or two, we may begin to see the start of a new economic crisis. The middle class, already threatened by income inequality, may face extinction, as automation tends to only favor the rich who own the machines. Unemployment on the scale of that suggested by automation would be catastrophic not only to our economy, but to our entire way of life. What do you do as a nation when half the country is without a job?
The answer may be to the far left of the cost-minimizing practices that are leading automation: universal basic income. The idea is any citizen, no matter who they are or what they do, is guaranteed an unconditional sum of money from the government. It sounds like a Marxist pipe dream or even a satire of one, free government money. Even social democrats like myself hesitate to consider universal basic income as a viable option. However, the idea is surprisingly finding allies in industry giants such as Elon Musk and tech leaders in Silicon Valley. For a strongly capitalist country such as ours, it’s an extreme option to consider, but what other choices will we have when automation leads to wide-scale unemployment? We’re not talking about needing a safety net for low income households in between manufacturing jobs, we’re talking about entire sectors eliminating the majority of their human workforce. People won’t be able to pay for necessities like food and housing, it would throw the country into chaos. If all the fears of automation are realized, we may need universal basic income just to maintain national stability.
There are many concerns over universal basic income, not the least of being what it would do to a country if its citizens were no longer required to hold a job. For many people, work is a way to find meaning; even a layabout such as myself understands that. However, in the choice between food and shelter versus an existential crisis, I think the answer is obvious. Machines are taking over more and more jobs, and a chunk of humanity will find itself out of work and without any economic means to survive if we don’t start planning for it now. It’s the stuff of science fiction, but it’s a decision we may have to make sooner rather than later.
Soren Malpass is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.