The robots are coming! The robots are coming! They are coming and they will completely alter our economic reality. However, instead of planning for this revolutionary change, America's politicians — from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on down — continue to cling to the illusion that, with the right tinkering, there can be enough jobs enough for everyone, just like in the good old days.
Well, the good old days are gone, and a story on the Futurism website demonstrates why: Changying Precision Technology Co.'s cellphone factory in China recently replaced 90% of its workers with machines and saw productivity increase by 250% while the number of product defects fell by 80%. This is great news for the company, not so great news for the now-unemployed workers.
Because free-market capitalism moves relentlessly toward innovation and efficiency, this is a phenomenon that will be repeated in small steps and big leaps in every industrialized society.
A White House report released in December says 83% of U.S. jobs in which people make less than $20 per hour are now, or soon will be, subject to automation. Additionally, thanks to the new marvel of driverless vehicles, all the underemployed folks who have found a slot driving for Uber and Lyft may soon find themselves redundant. And not just them. Driverless long-haul trucks are rolling into view, too. The White House study projects that as many as 3.1 million drivers of all kinds — cabbies, truckers, chauffeurs, bus drivers — could be made obsolete by the technological revolution in just a few years.
Andrew Yang, founder and chief executive of Venture for America, published an article this month that cites the White House report and warns Americans to get ready for an era of 60% unemployment. Having surveyed the thinking of top innovators in Silicon Valley, Yang says, "Literally the smartest people in the world think an unprecedented wave of job destruction is coming with the development of artificial intelligence, robotics, software and automation." And he quotes perhaps the brainiest guy in the world, scientist Stephen Hawking, as saying the "rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining."
Is anyone in Congress or the Trump White House (the report on automation was a leftover from the Obama administration) taking "job destruction" into account as they mull over long-range economic schemes? It appears not. Trump and his new EPA director are busy hacking away at environmental regulations, ostensibly to save a few jobs in the doomed coal industry, even as machines are steadily replacing workers in those same jobs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is on record insisting that automation and artificial intelligence will not kill very many jobs anytime soon. That is 50 or 100 years down the road, Mnuchin claims.
But Yum Brands Chief Executive Greg Creed told CNBC that, in his industry (Yum brands owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC), change is coming much faster than the Treasury secretary predicts. "I do believe that probably by the mid '20s to the late '20s, you'll start to see a dramatic change in how machines sort of run the world," Creed said.
Right now, it is tough for anyone with a high school education to find a job that pays enough money to live on. In just a few years, millions of jobs at the low end of the economic spectrum will be taken over by machines and the undereducated will be completely out of luck. It will not just be hamburger flippers in trouble, though — or truckers or factory workers. Numerous middle-class office workers will be displaced by robots, as well.
A significant part of this dislocation can be ameliorated by getting people better educated and able to do the work that machines cannot do (at least not yet). So, political leaders should begin getting much more serious about dealing with the prohibitive cost of higher education.
There is something bigger than retraining and education to be considered, though. On some not-too-distant day, it will become clear that our civilization has become so reliant on highly efficient, wondrously intelligent machinery that we simply do not need that many people to work in traditional jobs. There will be plenty of wealth to go around, but not that much work. Unless we want millions to starve or go homeless or riot in the streets, our society will need to guarantee a minimum income for everyone by letting all citizens share in the vast wealth created by robot labor.
To make a world with a limited need for human workers function successfully, we will have to find the answers to some big questions:
• How can humans feel useful in lives that are not centered around work?
• Are there rewarding tasks to be done by the underemployed whose value is not measured by money?
• Can we find it in ourselves to respect people who do those tasks or will we dismiss them as freeloaders? (Being more liberal-minded ought to be easier since a majority of us may lack traditional employment.)
• In a country built on self-reliance, the Protestant work ethic and meritocracy, can we adjust to a very different idea about how we spend our lives?
• Can the antigovernment philosophy that infuses and informs much of American politics ever accept the redistributive mechanisms that would be necessary to provide a minimum income to all?
We need to start thinking about these and other thorny questions now, because a great dislocation is not far away.