History is replete with major technological advancements and the societal consequences that arise from such advancements. One of the most impactful consequences is the manifestation of short periods of major unemployment as a direct result of increased automation. Instances of this include, but are not limited to, the industrial revolution, the creation of the assembly line, and technological innovations within agriculture that have increased the production, long-term storage, and wide area distribution of food. While these events have caused temporary employment issues, they have also brought opportunities for new jobs and further technological innovation. To that point, the expected effects that Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and the resultant increased levels of automation in the job market, will have on society may be greater than any of these previous instances in both the short and long-term.
Most recently, studies performed in developed nations, such as the U.S. (47%), the E.U. (54%), UK (47%), Romania (61%), Portugal (59%), France (50%), Denmark (50%), Sweden (47%), the Netherlands (50%), Croatia (58%), and Bulgaria (57%), set an average above 50% of all jobs to be overtaken by automation. Similar studies performed in developing nations, such as China, India, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines have expectations of 55-85% of jobs being lost to automation.
Additionally, the jobs that will be affected by such automation will disproportionately be low-income jobs, though some specialized occupations are also expected to be automated. Already within the U.S., 12% of the population falls beneath the poverty line. The continued automation of jobs, which has also been found to depress wages, will only cause more economic strife for those already at the bottom. Some of the expected industries where increased levels of automation have occurred recently or are expected to occur soon include transportation and logistics, mail delivery, fast food preparation, farm labor, insurance writing, construction, customer service, sales, and even healthcare and law.
While there is indeed an expectation by all for short term unemployment, economists are split on whether or not this will cause severe unemployment in the long-term. Additionally, some politicians and businesspersons are treading cautiously regarding the consequences of this technological revolution. For those who don’t expect long term effects, the Luddite or lump of labor fallacy is their predominant argument. The Luddite fallacy argument is dependent on the idea that newly developed machines will be able to do the “easy” work, and that highly specialized work, which requires critical thinking and skill, will continue to be done by humans.
While some studies have found that automation has not decreased employment in the long-term and has instead resulted in a net increase of jobs, the upcoming A.I. revolution may prove differently. Resultant from its very nature, wherein more complicated tasks are being completed by A.I. based machines. Tasks such as cancer screening, medical operations, and legal advice to name a few are signs that A.I. driven automation may be the transformative revolution where long-term employment effects are finally realized. Observations on the nature of this phenomenon go as far back as Aristotle, who once wrote “…for if every instrument, at command, or from a preconception of its master’s will, could accomplish its work…the shuttle would then weave, and the lyre play of itself; nor would the architect want servants, or the master slaves.” The question this information then provides is: What can be done to offset such potential economic turmoil? There are numerous suggestions, including enabling an adaptive workforce from the outset and retraining employees for new jobs that will appear post-automation. Both options should be pursued for the long-term health of the economy as a start. However, there is another option that is gaining ground on both sides of the political spectrum: universal basic income (UBI).
UBI is a program in which citizens within a country receive a regular sum of money. Generally, this is provided from the government, though a system could be built using some other organization, such as a company. For a UBI program there are also no additional requirements besides citizenship for citizens to receive payment within a UBI program, unlike other welfare programs. Additionally, the funds in a UBI program are distributed equally amongst all citizens, though implementations of such a program could be developed where distributed amounts are based on other considerations, such as salary and whether that citizen is using other welfare programs. Within the U.S., approximately 43% of Americans are already in favor of implementing a UBI program.
In fact, there are numerous instances of UBI programs being implemented today and in the past. In North America, the state of Alaska has had a similar program called the Permanent Fund Dividend since 1982, Manitoba had a pilot program in the ‘70s, and a Native American community in North Carolina had a profit-sharing program from a newly built casino. More recently in North America, a private company began a UBI program in Oakland, Ontario set up a government-based UBI program that was eventually cancelled by the newly elected government, and several other cities and states within the U.S. have contemplated beginning their own implementations.
Beyond North America, Africa has seen pilot programs in Namibia, Uganda, and Kenya begin within the past ten years. In Asia, the province of Madhya Pradesh, India began a program in 2010. In Latin America, two programs in Brazil have been attempting to tackle poverty issues. Finally, in Europe, programs have begun in Finland, Italy, and Scotland, with another expected to begin in the Netherlands soon. In each of these programs, notable mental and physical health improvements have been seen. The findings from these programs show higher degrees of happiness and stress relief, a greater ability to purchase more essential items such as food and medicine, and program participants will visit doctors more frequently.
Many economists are wary of UBI programs, citing increased costs and concerns over productivity and social cohesion. To counter those concerns, UBI programs, when implemented strategically, have decreased administrative costs for other welfare programs. UBI programs have also shown an increase in monetary transactions, increasing economic growth while moving some citizens at least partially out of poverty. Finally, there may be less need for increased human productivity if automation due to A.I. is to continue. Several technology entrepreneurs, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are of the belief that UBI programs will be required if A.I. driven automation continues to increase as expected.
As such, the Department of Labor should be proactive, not reactive, regarding UBI. A UBI program may be a necessary path forward if the U.S. is to avoid exacerbated economic strife and, if implemented appropriately, can be balanced against taxation concerns, other welfare programs, and salaried work. Working together with economists, businesspersons, and politicians, the Department of Labor should study and define what the best implementation of UBI within the U.S. would be, in order to understand the direct and indirect consequences of such programs and the continuing effects of A.I. directed automation on society.