Technology accelerates by leaps and bounds, which can only spell doom for most workers' economic prospects. How long before a robot or algorithm can do your job, leading to mass "technological unemployment?"
Machines are learning to master once-unthinkable tasks. Yet, even though our software can best us at Jeopardy! and our hardware has learned to run and jump, there's still no consensus among economists that we're entering a world without a need for humans.
Layoffs are an unfortunate consequence of innovation. Refrigerators replaced the milk man and faxes and computers decimated the ranks of the post office. This is just part of life in the industrial-cum-information age. However, history has repeatedly shown that the labor force eventually normalizes as workers retrain for new jobs (former milk men and their descendents do not aimlessly roam the streets).
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This fear of being outmoded by machines isn't new. In his 1930 essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" economist John Maynard Keynes warned of the coming "disease" of technological unemployment (here's a PDF link if you're in the mood for a little light reading). But that disease never really materialized. So, is this actually a thing we should concern ourselves with?
"I think if you talk to economists, they're a lot more skeptical, because this is not a new story. Worrying about automation and robots taking jobs—that has been a reoccurring concern since the industrial revolution," explains James Pethokoukis, a CNBC contributor and fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a libertarian-leaning think tank, who joined us for an episode of The Convo.
"And while there have been some difficult transition periods where there has been unemployment or wages didn't go up, eventually things all sort of work out in the end. I think the baseline economist's expectation is that that might happen again: There might indeed be a very difficult transition period, but in the end there will be jobs and incomes will rise."
That's the glass half-full outlook. There's also the possibility that the BIG changes just haven't hit yet (even Pethokoukis admits that self-driving cars, which will begin hitting the road in the 2020s will have a direct impact on thousands if not millions of livelihoods). Those who think we are barreling towards unprecedented economic calamity argue that the key differences today are 1) technology is improving too fast for human workers to ever keep up, and perhaps more importantly 2) technology is gaining human-like cognitive skills that can be applied to many job sectors.
It's no longer just the assembly line worker who should fear being outmoded; it's stock brokers, customer service reps, and even we humble bloggers. It remains to be seen if the economy of the future will create enough jobs for software coders and drone designers to make up for all the cashiers and cab drivers it loses. There are very smart economists who come down on both sides of that question.
So, what should society do, if anything, about this potential creeping upheaval, whose timeline is even in question? Possible solutions include everything from Trump-style protectionism to investing further in STEM education to shortening the work week.
But the solution that has received the most attention from Silicon Valley by far is the universal basic income (UBI). Tech luminaries like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Ray Kurzweil think it might be a beneficial tool at some point. (Mark Cuban isn't such a fan, for whatever that's worth.)
While there are different flavors of the UBI, the basic concept is that everyone just gets money for existing—this, in theory, would help keep the economy running smoothly even as people are working less.
"Sounds like a communist scheme" jokes Pethokoukis. But he explains how this is actually a very old idea that has its roots on the political right as a way to simplify the welfare state. It's an idea that's really taken off among the libertarian-leaning luminaries of the tech world in recent years.
"Silicon Valley has sort of latched on to this idea. They have the most aggressive timetable as far as when we will actually see all these jobs hemorrhage," explains Pethokoukis.
"So they've leaped ahead and started thinking about solutions. So, if you're worried about technological unemployment, the first thing you're going to think of is 'okay, if they're unemployed, we don't want anybody starving, so we're just gonna give everybody a basic income.'...I think it's an idea to consider. There are various flavors of the Basic Income. Right now I'd rather focus on getting people good jobs and training them rather than throwing up my hands and writing them a check."
On the positive side, a UBI could eliminate "poverty traps" that can occur in many of today's welfare schemes—when recipients are disincentivized from getting a job because they'd lose access to services or take home less money. Additionally, if there's a firm baseline below which nobody could never fall, people might feel encouraged to take risks like starting their own business or investing in themselves by going back to school.
On the flip side, a sturdy safety net might prove a little too comfortable for some and encourage people not to participate in the economy at all. Experiments with UBI around the world have offered mixed results.
Few would argue there is an immediate need to confront mass technological unemployment, however it's certainly time society start thinking about its priorities. These ivory tower thought experiments about the 2030's economy may seem completely inconsequential, but technological evolution is promising some very big changes that will demand we navigate an unprecedented landscape.
The Convo is PCMag's interview series hosted by features editor Evan Dashevsky (@haldash). Each episode is initially broadcast live on PCMag's Facebook page, where live viewers are invited to ask guests questions in the comments. Each episode is then made available on our YouTube page and available for free as an audio podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes or on the podcast platform of your choice.