Your Job Probably Isn't Safe, But Your Income Might Be

Published: May 09, 2016 09:48am EDT
By Tyler Hakes, for Konsume Technology

Please Note: This article was updated May 09, 2016 @ 10:39am EDT


There’s a big change looming in the global job market.

Many experts agree that technological automation is poised to eliminate some 50% of the jobs that humans currently hold--and soon.

With each new breakthrough in computing and technology, machines move closer to replacing much of the work that many people do. Similar to what we now see as common in manufacturing with heavy machinery, this new age of intelligent machines will not just augment our physical abilities, but may also replace the need for human thought and creativity involved in many jobs.

“As technology continues to take on jobs and tasks that used to belong only to human workers, one can imagine a time in the future when more and more jobs are more cheaply done by machines than humans,” reads a paper published by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in 2011.

And at the same time, millions of Americans are already performing jobs that seem almost trivial in the scheme of our economy. Many routine positions involve repetitive tasks and calculations--the kinds of things we do on our smartphones each and every day.

These jobs mostly exist because they have historically existed, and people have not fully embraced the role of machines in phasing out these positions.

But reality is clear: Many jobs simply don’t need to be performed by humans.

The rise of machines

Many professions are ripe for disruption--or, destruction, as it were. Especially those performed by low-wage, low-skill workers. Truck drivers, secretaries, librarians, administrative workers, and bank tellers are all examples of positions that could be replaced by adequately-intelligent machines.

But it’s not just customer service positions that are at risk. Lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists are also being increasingly challenged by technological replacements.

Dr. Martin Gervais, an associate professor of economics at the University of Iowa says that any job that’s considered “routine” could be replaced by machines in the coming future.

“Routine jobs are not all low-skill jobs, nor low-pay jobs,” said Gervais in an email. “They are all over the spectrum, with perhaps more mass in the middle, hence the disappearing [middle class]. Some of these displace down, others up.”

(Editor’s note: Although Dr. Gervais agreed that many jobs will likely be replaced by machines, he expects that many of those displaced will be able to find new work.)

Telepharma, or services that provide access to prescription drugs from doctors over the phone or a Skype-like service, have been gaining some national prominence. And automated legal services have been said to be able to replace much of the clerical work that is performed by entry-level lawyers.

All told, the number of jobs performed today by humans that are expected to be automated within the near future is staggering. A study from the World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded that more than 5 million jobs will likely be eliminated in just the next 4 years due to technological advances.

Andy Haldane, the chief economist for the Bank of England, has warned that as many as 50% of all jobs will be replaced by robots within 10 to 20 years.

“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past. Why? Because 20th century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too,” said Haldane during a 2015 speech. “The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”

But even still, it can seem like we are decades or centuries away from machines that can handle all of the tasks of people, right?

Well, that may not be the case. Not only are humans getting better at building smarter technology, but soon, the technology itself will be capable of building ever-smarter versions of itself--and that will change the equation dramatically.

Making way for technology

Although we are currently seeing increased automation and jobs threatened by technology already available, this trend is likely to accelerate very rapidly in the future. Not only will our current technology become better and more ubiquitous, but the development of new technology will accelerate at exponential speed, thanks in large part to an idea known as The Singularity.

In computer science, The Singularity is known as the point in time when machine intelligence will outpace that of humans and usher in explosive growth in technological advancement.

The way it happens is pretty simple: As our scientists and researchers work to build artificial intelligence and “smart” machines, they will inevitably develop a machine that is more intelligent than a single human. Once this occurs, this intelligence will be able to develop yet smarter machines, but at the speed of a computer, rather than the speed of a human. This cycle will repeat over and over, leading to massive strides in computer intelligence, presumably until the power of these computers will eclipse the collective intelligence of our entire species.

With this, our computers will essentially be able to improve upon their own intelligence infinitely, and teach themselves how to build better and smarter machines to continue this pattern.

Ray Kurzweil, a famous technologist and futurist, is one of the first scientists to put forth the idea of The Singularity and predicts that it would occur sometime around 2045.

“Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029,” he said in a 2012 interview. “Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.”

According to most people who study machine intelligence, this event will likely lead to not only improved technology, but it will usher in a revolution--and we’re really not sure what will happen afterward. Because the collective intelligence of machines is expected to grow so rapidly, it is nearly impossible to predict what kinds of breakthroughs or advances will be made. Our minds may literally be unable to fathom the technology that will be built by these machines.

While this entire premise may seem scary, it also means that the role of humans in the workforce is likely far more uncertain than we can imagine at this point in time. For now, machines are mostly contributing by Robots replacing workersreplacing mundane and simple tasks. But they may soon be capable of doing much more than that.

This raises some legitimate concerns about the future. What will all of these people do if their jobs disappear? And how will they make a living? Will machines be a death knell for capitalism on a global scale?

There are no sure answers. But many people have rallied around a few ideas that will help our country tackle these challenges and ensure that our citizens aren’t left without an income.

Getting paid to do nothing

If machines are truly poised to wipe out so many of our jobs in the future, then how will we all earn a living? Surely some new jobs will be created with the technology, but many jobs will simply be gone forever--much the way that there was no longer a need for a blacksmith after the advent of industrial manufacturing.

One possible solution to technological unemployment could be instituting a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

As the name implies, this would be an income given to all citizens by the government--no strings attached. There are various versions of the idea, but they all essentially work the same way: Rather than have a series of targeted social welfare programs that earmark benefits for things like food or child services, just roll everything into a single payment that gets disbursed to everyone.

Under most proposals, everyone would receive the income as a floor, regardless of income, and then those who earned over a certain threshold would essentially pay the benefit back in taxes at the end of the year.

But the payback wouldn’t be proportional to income. So, for example, if you earned $20,000 per year in income, you wouldn’t lose that same amount in benefit. So someone working a low-wage job would earn more by both working and collecting the benefit than they would from the UBI alone. This is the key to making the whole thing work--it establishes an income floor for all citizens, but without destroying the incentive to work.

The policy has been discussed by a number of notable economists and futurists. Even though it may seem completely implausible, the idea certainly has its supporters.

But politics may be a completely different beast. Even if it were to garner widespread support among those sympathetic to workers being phased out of their positions, how would it get support from politicians in order to become law?

The politics of it all

Probably the most intriguing thing about the idea of a UBI is that it has potential to break through some serious stalemates that exist within American economic policy.

For decades, the American Right and Left have been tangled in an ideological and political battle over the shape and direction of the U.S. economy. Most proponents on the Left have rallied for a stronger social safety net and expanded government programs for those in need. Meanwhile, the GOP has pushed back against such an expansion, extolling the virtues of a free market economy and proposing that shrinking government overreach into business would do more to improve the economy than propping it up through federal programs.

The UBI can--theoretically--please both crowds.

It’s probably obvious why liberals would like the idea. It provides for a permanent social safety net for all citizens--regardless of history, race, gender, religion, or ability to work.

But what’s in it for the Republicans? Smaller government: That is, the consolidation of all of the existing federal programs--and all of the overhead and bureaucracy that goes along with their administration--into a single, non-qualified hand out means huge savings on the federal level. One, single machine that should operate more smoothly than a number of disparate federal agencies that communicate poorly. And since the benefit would not be tied to specific qualifications, there would be much lower administrative costs without the need for extensive checking and rechecking of applicants to see if they qualify to receive benefits each and every month.

There's also the case of the minimum wage, which is seen by the Left as a safety net of sorts, aimed at helping ensure workers earn a livable income. But others say that raising the wage kills jobs and stifles business. Under the UBI, there would ostensibly be no use for a minimum wage, as any income would be supplementary to the earnings floor, rather than an alternative to receiving benefits. So employees could earn lower wages but still make more per year than they would have earning much more and working full time without UBI benefits.

Of course, working in theory is a long cry from well-crafted policy. And few politicians have openly embraced the idea.

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, has done some analysis of the idea. He thinks that it’s plausible--but not without faults. Even so, he says that we’re nowhere near being able to actually implement such a policy in the U.S.

“Serious consideration of a basic income in the US is many years down the road,” he said in an email. “It has just entered into the political discussion process. There aren't any serious proposals yet.”

And so it seems that the ultimate solution to technological unemployment--if it is indeed a guaranteed income--could, too, be racing technology.

Hopefully we’ll get it figured out before it’s too late.


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