thoughts on the upcoming robot revolution

Do you hear that buzzing noise at the edge of the horizon? It’s the sound of the machines plotting to steal our jobs (and even jobs from immigrants).

They Took 'Er Jobs!

Oh, that sounds silly does it? Well, think again. And again. And AGAIN.

Joking aside, it’s really a question of when, not if. Large companies have been slowly replacing workforces with automation where possible, and who could blame them? Robots are amazing, and uh, fast. Plus, they don’t sleep, eat or even take breaks. And they don’t need vacation. Oh, and they won’t form unions.

Unless you program them to, of course.

So with robots taking on repetitive tasks here in the U.S. and those jobs not going to other humans, what happens to the people who already have a tough time finding work? Sure, some of them can join in on the fun work of maintaining the robots who replaced them (yay!), but for a significant portion of the rest, there will simply be no jobs for them to grab. By some recent estimates, over 5,000,000 jobs will be lost to automation by the year 2020. That might sound small compared to the world population, but when you consider the 15 countries polled, it starts to sound like a bit more of a problem.

To arrive at those numbers, the WEF surveyed 15 countries that make up 1.9 billion workers, including China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the UK and US. In other words, about 65 percent of the total workforce worldwide.

And if you think it’s just blue-collar workers, think again.

The WEF claims white-collar workers — administrative and office jobs — are at the highest risk of being replaced.

From what I can tell, this isn’t even taking into consideration the recent leaps in technology that are being made by private companies. Boston Dynamics, for example, released a new version of Atlas — a bipedal robot that can walk on uneven terrain, track and lift objects, and even get back up to a standing position when pushed over:

This is a robot that could feasibly be programmed to do a variety of jobs thousands of people are doing right now. By 2020, it’s almost guaranteed a bot like this could take over a lot of jobs on factory floors that require walking, or jobs out in the wild — like delivering mail and packages — from an autonomous vehicle. And that’s just the beginning.

You’ve got AI being developed at such a rapid rate that it’s only a matter of time before a computer can not only do the menial tasks humans do, but do them better. You may remember IBM’s Deep Blue beating Chess grand champion Gary Kasparov back in 1997. Well, recently Google’s DeepMind beat Go grand champion Lee Se-dol about ten years before it was predicted to be possible.

DeepMind may not take your specific job over any time soon, but the point is that the time between leaps is becoming shorter and shorter; learning robots could, hypothetically, be given a task and learn the best way to do it. That includes my line of work — software development. Within ten years, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a person like myself could be threatened with a more economical robot replacement.

So where does this leave us? Well, jobless, most likely. That isn’t necessarily a death sentence either. For a lot of people, there’s the option of starting up a home-based business and dealing with the job loss that way. Or why not cash in on the robot economy yourself? After all, with new industries come all kinds of new problems to solve.

But that still leaves a large chunk of the population outside. In the rain. Laying in the gutter.

My wager is that within the next twenty years, we’re going to see millions of people supplanted by machines in the US alone. A significant portion of these people won’t be able to find work anywhere and won’t be able to start a successful home-based business. How will the welfare system possibly handle the influx? If it’s the one we’ve got now, it won’t. And we should never assume that the market will take care of jobs for all those in need; obviously that is not the case.

Look, I don’t even know that I’m suggesting basic income for all, although I don’t think it’s an option we should take off the table. Plenty of smart people are researching it or think we should research it, and some really smart people — Stephen Hawking included — think it’s the way to go, unless robots can provide everything virtually for free. In an AMA post a while back, someone asked him about this very subject and he brought up yet another excellent point:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

It is not in the interest of the people who makes these machines to let robots simply provide us with everything we might need, although I do foresee some of the richer humanitarian types going that direction. Whether it’s profitable is not for me to say. And I must say, it seems rather naive to let robots provide all we need (what happens when the people who control the robots decide to start controlling us? These things need consideration).

What does seem more likely though is universal basic income.

Personally, I don’t care about the socialism stigma on the idea, especially if it means millions of people not having to suffer. On the contrary, if we can’t create an automated society where humans can essentially worry about the top tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the alternative is misery, then what alternative is there?

As always, I’m open to your thoughts.