Robots are Reshaping Not Only Work But Maybe Soon Compensation for Employees Left By the Wayside

                           The Atlas Robot from Boston Dynamics. Can he take jobs away                               from people?


Adam Preset’s insightful presentation last class glimpsed the future for all its utopian potential facilitated by the “nexus of forces” contained in technological advances in the cloud, social, mobile, and the Internet of Things, including smart machines, aka robots.

The good news, smart machines that are oftentimes called bots, are getting better and better all the time and, as evidenced by IBM’s Watson, can already best their human counterparts in brute force knowledge, such as the best chess move or amassing data in minutes for financial projections that would have taken human analysts hours or even days.

The bad news?  Bots may so disrupt the way we work that they may in fact take jobs away from humans before the “postwork” nirvana of “free time for all” kicks in or is even viable in the age of robots, a worry even more pronounced in the wake of the Great Recession were even as America recovers and jobs are gained, wage growth remains sluggish, job security has become an obsolete concept, and college loans are all but closing the door to a credential seen as necessary for achieving a brighter future for young people.  Add the possibility of robots taking many jobs, including so-called knowledge work, and the worry level skyrockets.

Enter U.B.I. or “universal basic income,” a concept now being kicked around by economists and (who else), venture capitalists, as a way to hedge the negative job creation created by artificial intelligence, including smart machines and robots.

What would U.B.I. look like?  According to experts, the government would send each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that.

Rather than a job-killing catastrophe, tech supporters of U.B.I. consider machine intelligence to be something like a natural bounty for society: The country has struck oil, or fracked natural gas and now it can hand out checks to each of its citizens. And why not? These supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering.

Hey, isn’t that what they do in Saudi Arabia now?  Instead of building an educational and civil infrastructure with a governmental system that rewards hard work , innovation, and creativity, they just hand out checks from oil revenues.  Free money that seems adjusted on a sliding scale to assuage the fact that there is no democracy, women have few rights–legal, cultural or religious–forcing them to dress a certain way, have restricted educational and professional options, mingle only with men they’re related to or in dampening the frustrations of young, unemployed men who can’t find jobs and may believe that another way of government might give them a better life and more opportunities.

And even in our own country, weren’t oil checks the basis of Alaska’s growth and development pre-recession when revenues from North Slope oil drilling filled Alaska’s coffers and funded health and welfare programs instead of job-creating start-ups or innovative opportunities for Eskimos and other native populations?  Yet the easy money model endures for “the land of the midnight sun.”  Even post-recession, Alaska is holding on to this subsidy to artificially fuel growth and programs.  The state will give each resident more than $2,000 next month as the annual payout from an oil wealth trust fund, up from $1,000 to residents started in 1982.

So, bottom line, is U.B.I., a good or bad idea?

I say bad idea.  Social Security is one thing, a payment at the end of one’s career when the peak earning years are over and yet financial needs continue post-work years.  A permanent subsidy like a universal basic income is another.

Why do I say that?  All actions have consequences.  Do you want to live off an allowance from your parents or go out and make your own money with all that means in terms of independence, autonomy, and the freedom to live your life as you want. And what will it mean for the society where there is limited incentive to create something new, find useful work, train for useful work, or see a path to greater opportunity where there are new work tools created by new technology vs. just seeing a calendar scrolling to the next pay check.

Here’s Farhad Manjoo’s thoughtful reporting in today’s NY Times:


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