We are in the age of au­to­ma­tion

The ne­ces­sity for an uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come

The McGill Daily - - News - Cé­dric Parages is a U3 stu­dent in Wildlife Bi­ol­ogy. To con­tact the au­thor, please email cedric­par­ages@gmail.com

Since the eco­nomic re­ces­sion in 2008, the world econ­omy has found its foot­ing and the GDPS of in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries have steadily been ris­ing. How­ever, as busi­nesses man­aged to op­ti­mize pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency af­ter mil­lions of jobs were lost, trou­bling con­se­quences have emerged for work­ers with low in­come se­cu­rity or sav­ings. The value of cur­ren­cies are ris­ing, ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties such as ed­u­ca­tion and health­care are be­com­ing more ex­pen­sive, yet mid­dle wages are not ris­ing to com­pen­sate. In­come and wealth in­equal­i­ties in the U.S. are higher now than ever be­fore in the na­tion’s his­tory ac­cord­ing to a study from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, with the top 0.1 per­centile own­ing 22 per cent of the na­tion’s wealth in 2012, com­pared to just seven per cent in 1978. In 2015, the top ten per cent in­come bracket earned 50.5 per cent of all in­come made that year, close to the most it’s ever been. In Canada, the top 20 per cent in­come group takes in 39.1% of the in­come of the coun­try, and al­though in­come is much more evenly dis­trib­uted here than in the U.S, this top in­come group is the only in­come quin­tile to have in­creased its share of the pie in the last twenty years.

Un­for­tu­nately, the com­plex net­work of safety nets such as wel­fare, un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and min­i­mum wage cur­rently in place may not be enough to coun­ter­act the in­creas­ing in­equal­i­ties in in­come and wealth. In U.S. states and met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas where min­i­mum wage has been in­creased to $15 an hour, such as Wash­ing­ton, New York City, San Fran­cisco and oth­ers, Mc­don­alds is re­plac­ing cashiers and work­ers with au­to­mated sys­tems so cus­tomers can make or­ders by kiosk or on the phone and have their meal brought over to them. The math be­hind the change demon­strates why: an em­ployee with a wage of $15 per hour costs the com­pany $38,500 a year in­clud­ing so­cial se­cu­rity and in­sur­ance, while a ma­chine costs only $35,000, mak­ing back its worth in a year and be­ing ready to use 24/7.

Au­to­ma­tion is here

The fast food ser­vice in­dus­try is not the only mar­ket where au­to­ma­tion will con­tinue to take peo­ple’s jobs. It only makes sense that as the pop­u­la­tion of the world grows, we will need more ef­fi­cient ways to mass man­u­fac­ture, trans­port and dis­trib­ute goods; pro­duce and trans­fer en­ergy; and dis­trib­ute our food sup­ply. To­day, ro­bots and au­to­mated sys­tems are start­ing to com­plete com­plex tasks, such as self-driv­ing cars that use sen­sors and cam­eras to gather data about their sur­round­ings, and self-learn­ing artificial in­tel­li­gence such as Google’s Al­phago, which re­cently de­feated the world’s best player of the board game Go, which is widely con­sid­ered to be the most com­plex board game in the world. Ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion, one third of the en­tire world food pro­duc­tion is lost or wasted, and we could eas­ily feed ev­ery mal­nour­ished per­son on the Earth if none of it was wasted – all the way up to 10 bil­lion peo­ple, the pro­jected pop­u­la­tion of the Earth by 2050. If we can al­ready feed that many peo­ple to­day, au­to­ma­tion would en­able us to achieve solv­ing what we right now can­not, world hunger and poverty.

In the man­u­fac­tur­ing mar­ket, au­to­ma­tion has been in­creas­ingly present for decades, such as in the assem­bly of cars and the mass pro­duc­tion of com­mer­cial goods. The man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try in the U.S. has been grow­ing, namely by 17.6 per cent from 2006 to 2013, yet per the U.S. Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics, five mil­lion jobs have been lost in the sec­tor since 2000. While to­day’s global au­to­ma­tion in man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­counts for an av­er­age ten per cent of all tasks, re­search from the Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group in­di­cates it may well be 25 per cent by 2025. While po­lit­i­cal fig­ures such as Don­ald Trump claim that these man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs are be­ing lost to trade, a 2015 re­port from Ball State Uni­ver­sity’s Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search found that 87 per cent of man­u­fac­tur­ing job losses are due to au­to­ma­tion while only 13 per cent are due to trade deals. These changes are not unique to the U.S.. A fac­tory in Dong­guan, China, which man­u­fac­tures mo­bile phone parts, cut down their work­force from 650 em­ploy­ees to just sixty at the end of last year with the ad­di­tion of new au­to­mated ma­chines, el­e­vat­ing their pro­duc­tion by 250 per cent within a few months time. To com­bat the ris­ing cost of hu­man labour for mak­ing shoes by hand in China due to their flour­ish­ing econ­omy, Adi­das is about to open a fac­tory in Ger­many that is com­pletely au­to­mated and 3D-prints shoes, which they hope will rev­o­lu­tion­ize the sports­wear in­dus­try by short­en­ing the sup­ply chain and time needed be­tween a new de­sign and re­leased prod­uct.

Au­to­ma­tion is af­fect­ing more than the man­u­fac­ture of goods. The mo­bile taxi com­pany Uber has al­ready be­gun rolling out self-driv­ing cars in cer­tain U.S states such as San Fran­cisco and Pitts­burgh. Mean­while, a few com­mer­cial Tesla car mod­els have come equipped with an Au­topi­lot mode, which is cur­rently mostly be­ing used to record and ag­gre­gate data, im­prov­ing the artificial in­tel­li­gence of the soft­ware. Even though driv­ers are in­structed and warned to keep their hands on the wheel at all times dur­ing au­topi­lot mode in case of an emer­gency or life threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion, the first fa­tal ac­ci­dent hap­pened in May 2016 from a Tesla car on this driver as­sist mode. There have been a few other cases of Google self-driv­ing cars also get­ting into ac­ci­dents, al­though non life threat­en­ing, yet rep­re­sen­ta­tives claim these are due to hu­man er­ror and not the soft­ware it­self. The tech­nol­ogy is def­i­nitely not per­fected yet, and au­to­mated cars do need to drive in ac­tual real life con­di­tions to be tested for com­mer­cial use and for the AI to im­prove it­self faster. Com­par­ing over­all crash rates be­tween au­to­mated and hu­man driv­ers has been dif­fi­cult so far due to lack of data, as a 2016 study from Vir­ginia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy claims self-driv­ing cars have much lower crash rates than hu­mans, while a 2015 study from Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Ann Ar­bor claims the op­po­site. A 2013 study from the Eno Cen­ter for Trans­porta­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. es­ti­mates that if ten per cent of cars were self­driv­ing, 211,000 ac­ci­dents could be avoided and 1,100 lives saved while for ninety per cent, 4.2 mil­lion ac­ci­dents and 21,700 lives would be spared per year. Nev­er­the­less, while some peo­ple may pre­fer the com­pany of a cab driver and a hu­man vis­age to in­ter­act with to a self driv­ing ve­hi­cle, oth­ers may even­tu­ally see all hu­man driv­ers as un­nec­es­sary risks in their daily com­mutes.

Uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come is needed

Dystopian nov­els may paint a pic­ture of the fu­ture over­run by self­aware artificial in­tel­li­gence and ro­bots that turn against their mak­ers, yet noth­ing will pre­vent au­to­ma­tion and tech­nol­ogy from sur­round­ing us. To com­bat an in­sur­mount­able wage gap and com­pa­nies that choose to re­place work­ers in­stead of adapt­ing to ris­ing min­i­mum wage laws, we must even­tu­ally cre­ate em­ploy­ment in ar­eas where au­to­ma­tion can­not re­place and un­der­mine. CEO of Tesla Inc. and Spacex Elon Musk, pre­vi­ous CEO of Mi­crosoft Bill Gates and many eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal lead­ers agree that there is a so­lu­tion: Uni­ver­sal Ba­sic In­come (UBI), where ev­ery­one of em­ploy­ment age is guaranteed a ba­sic in­come (even with­out prov­ing they are look­ing for em­ploy­ment). It would be a so­cial pol­icy to re­place all other safety nets cur­rently avail­able. Ro­bots are even­tu­ally all we will need to ful­fill jobs, and they will do it for cheaper. Work­ers can in­stead ded­i­cate them­selves to oc­cu­pa­tions where au­to­ma­tion can­not re­place hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, such as teach­ing, busi­ness, sci­en­tific re­search and en­ter­tain­ment.

Var­i­ous coun­tries around the world are al­ready start­ing pi­lot projects to test the ef­fects of UBI. One of the first UBI tests ever con­ducted was in Man­i­toba, Canada in the 1970s, where pro­vid­ing fam­i­lies liv­ing un­der the poverty line with a ba­sic in­come en­abled their chil­dren to fin­ish high school, in­creas­ing rates of high school grad­u­a­tion. Gen­eral health in­creased as a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in doc­tor ap­point­ments, hos­pi­tal vis­its and psy­chi­a­try treat­ment was recorded. While there was con­cern for dis­abling in­cen­tive for work and labour, only nine per cent of the test sub­jects worked less hours than they did be­fore, and post-anal­y­sis of the data sug­gests that this was due to the op­por­tu­nity cost of spend­ing more time with fam­ily. The re­searchers fol­lowed up with the fam­i­lies af­ter the study was over when they no longer re­ceived the set in­comes, and their in­come se­cu­rity and men­tal health were still main­tained at a higher level than be­fore the study. Hugh Se­gal, a for­mer Cana­dian se­na­tor and now ad­vi­sor to the On­tario pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has just started a three year UBI pi­lot project giv­ing out $1,320 per month in ad­di­tional in­come to the home­less and those un­der the poverty line.

Ebay founder Pierre Omid­yar is fund­ing a mil­lion dol­lars to one of the big­gest UBI projects in his­tory via the char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tion Givedi­rectly in Kenya, giv­ing 6,000 Kenyans a liv­able wage for 12 years. Fin­land has also just started its na­tional UBI test which just be­gan in Jan­uary f, of­fer­ing 560 Eu­ros ev­ery month to 2,000 un­em­ployed Finns aged 25 to 58, elim­i­nat­ing their other so­cial and un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, and will not cease to of­fer the money even if they find em­ploy­ment. Other cities and mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­i­ties in the Nether­lands, Cal­i­for­nia and Italy are also con­duct­ing their own UBI re­search, which will pro­vide re­searchers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers world­wide much­needed data to really un­der­stand if the con­cept works for the long-term and what ef­fects it might have on the labour mar­ket.

There are many com­pli­ca­tions and ques­tions to an­swer if we are to move to­ward a UBI. For in­stance, how will the gov­ern­ment be able to af­ford it, how much will it raise taxes by, and will it dis­in­cen­tive work? Bill Gates has a so­lu­tion to the fund­ing needed to make this work on a na­tional scale: tax the ro­bots for their labour just like peo­ple. Elon Musk has more per­sonal ques­tions, such as: how will peo­ple find mean­ing in their lives if au­to­ma­tion takes what they love to do away from them? I per­son­ally think that peo­ple will al­ways want more than they cur­rently have and to en­joy new ex­pe­ri­ences. Mak­ing more than the ba­sic in­come to do re­cre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties such as trav­el­ling will re­main an in­cen­tive for labour. Keep­ing in a steady and healthy so­cial en­vi­ron­ment is also equally im­por­tant, and hav­ing a job is es­sen­tial to so­cial sta­tus. UBIS could be­come a bi­par­ti­san so­lu­tion where left wing and right wing pol­i­tics could unite be­hind the re­moval of loop­holes and red tape in so­cial ben­e­fits, in­stead pro­vid­ing a sin­gle stream­lined sys­tem for ev­ery­one. There is a 1980 quote from the renowned evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Stephen Ray Jould which rings quite true, in my eyes, with re­gards to UBI: “I am, some­how, less in­ter­ested in the weight and con­vul­sions of Ein­stein’s brain than in the near cer­tainty that peo­ple of equal tal­ent have lived and died in cot­ton fields and sweat­shops.”

Rahma Wiry­omartono | The Mcgill Daily

Cé­dric Parages Sci+tech Colum­nist

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.