By Sean Welsh
Automation has disrupted work for centuries. Two hundred years ago in Britain, the Luddites rose in rebellion, smashing the machines that made their weaving skills obsolete.
Today it’s high status cognitive jobs that are under threat. Earlier this year ROSS, a legal version of IBM’s Watson, was launched and hailed as the first artificially intelligent lawyer. Future iterations may put lawyers out of work.
An artificial intelligence (AI) outperformed an air force colonel in a combat simulation, and a robot outperformed human surgeons in stitching up a pig.
Manual jobs continue to disappear. Truckers, bus drivers and taxi drivers are threatened by self-driving vehicles. The Baxter robot threatens warehouse and labouring jobs while Hadrian X threatens bricklaying.
Payback time on robots is shorter than ever, with 47% of US jobs, 69% of Indian jobs and 77% of Chinese jobs vulnerable to automation.
Historically, capitalism has succeeded in generating new jobs to replace the old but past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance.
While some argue new jobs will be created to replace the jobs lost to automata, many fear economies will be disrupted as never before. Sober professors of computer science and business analysts now routinely predict massive job losses.
If we grant, for the sake of argument, the premise that massive technological unemployment is plausible, how will society cope?
The future is workless
In his newly released book, Why the Future is Workless, author Tim Dunlop accepts the demise of jobs as inevitable. Thus, he says, we must rethink our jobs-based economy.
Not only that, we have to rethink job-centric human values. Currently our purpose and status in society derive mostly from our paid work. In a world where robots work better, how will humans cope?
It is easy to imagine a dystopian future of increasing wealth inequality, where those with robots live in gated communities and those without live in low-tech badlands. A revolt of colonels leading bot-breaking bricklayers is not unimaginable.
How will society migrate from an economy based on human labour to one based on robot labour, without riots and revolts?
Money for nothing
Dunlop, like many from the left, the right and the tech elite, thinks a universal basic income (UBI) policy is required to handle the transition.
UBI is a no-strings-attached, non-means-tested social dividend. All citizens get one to compensate for being shut out of the means of privatised production.
The political philosopher and writer Thomas Paine defended UBI as a moral quid pro quo for private property.
In the state of nature, humans can forage for their food from the Earth. In a privatised world this natural right is thwarted thus an inalienable rent is due by property owners to society sufficient to cover people’s basic needs.
UBI could be funded by a land or property tax, a sovereign wealth fund, a tax on automata or a mix of measures. Such fiscal revolution would be a steep political challenge.
No major party supported UBI in this June’s referendum in Switzerland. Even so, the Yes vote got 23% support. Supporting No, the Swiss government pointed to the moral hazard of making work optional. They also pointed to cost.
Paying UBI at Australia’s Newstart Allowance levels (about A$13,000 p.a.) to all 24 million Australians with no age conditions would cost A$312 billion. Current Federal tax receipts are A$383 billion of which A$158 billion is spent on social security and welfare.
Even assuming UBI replaces all other welfare and social security payments, it requires doubling the social security budget. Eliminating the administrative overhead of means-testing by cutting the 30,000 staff and related expenses in Human and Social Services could only save A$5 billion.
Making UBI less universal by restricting it to Australians of working age would save A$106 billion, bringing the cost of UBI down to $A206 billion: still a huge challenge in a climate of “budget repair”.
More research is needed
While fiscally daunting, UBI could have positive effects. UBI might encourage more innovation and entrepreneurial activity from people freed from wage dependence. It could reduce stress and improve mental health.
If everyone got UBI it would be free of the stigma of the dole. UBI would recognise the value of unpaid work such as volunteering and stay at home parenting.
Some say UBI would be a “bad utopia” preserving capitalism but it might actualise Marx’s 1845 vision of a society where one might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” as one liked.
People could live much like slaveholders of the antebellum South but with robots instead of enslaved humans doing the work.
Certainly, we need to continue the conversation about the threats and opportunities of mass technological unemployment and do more research into UBI.
If Robotopia is likely, how we will live our lives and find meaning in a workless world?
Sean Welsh is a doctoral candidate in robot ethics at the University of Canterbury.