Robots and AI need to be included in next census
On Friday, Statistics Canada will close its public consultation for the next census in 2021. As that date approaches, the agency should be encouraged to rethink Canada’s demographic mix by considering how robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will be a part of it.
By now, most Canadians have seen estimates of up to 42 per cent of jobs being taken by robots or AI. If those projections are correct, this will mean a massive upheaval of not only the economy but also Canadian society more generally. It will potentially shrink the country’s tax base, reduce the power of the state, and fundamentally alter social policy across a wide range of areas.
It is unclear whether the looming disruption of the economy will lead to autonomation — mechanization with a human touch, whereby people amplify technology — or whether it will be automation that simply replaces human workers.
If existing workers cannot adapt or are no longer needed, and projections are correct — this will potentially mean a loss of $124 billion, using estimates from last year’s tax revenues. This leads to the question of who or what will pay taxes in an economy driven by robots and AI.
It also leads to questioning how the state will maintain itself. A potential loss of almost half the tax base will have serious repercussions for how the government can maintain and deliver services to the country. If it fails to do so, the government risks becoming irrelevant in a new age of robotics and AI.
Despite the potential for such enormous change, Canadian policymakers and businesses have been slow to adjust, and policy lags far behind. This is because of a lack of systematic data on the scale of robotics and AI already integrated into the Canadian economy.
This is an area where Statistics Canada can play a role in helping Canada navigate its future. The next census cycle is the right time to seriously consider the role of robots and AI in the country’s demographic makeup.
To do so, demographers and policymakers will have to get a firm understanding of exactly what robots and AI are. Is a Roomba vacuum cleaner a robot or AI? How about arms used in auto plants, self-driving cars, or Siri or Google interactive systems? Should each be considered equally in projections of how they will affect Canadian society? These are questions for social scientists to explore and policymakers to consider.
Is the country’s legal system up to the task of dealing with crimes by robots and AI?
Beyond counting robots and AI, a demography of each means also considering their growth trajectories and how those affect the human population. If Moore’s Law, which says computing power doubles every 18 months, applies to robots and AI, disruption is just around the corner, not decades away. It may be time to start considering how robots and AI will affect all aspects of Canadian society and not just the economy, with growth of each in mind.
Is the country’s legal system up to the task of dealing with crimes by robots and AI? What should curriculums look like for students who will live in a world where almost half of current jobs will be obsolete? Does it make sense to pursue economic immigration in a society where the economy will be disrupted? What are the esthetics and culture, or the ordering principles, of a society that has robots and AI as part of it? The root to answering all these questions lies in first systematically knowing and counting the technology to estimate is growth.
Policy decisions need to be based on what tomorrow will look like, rather than what we know today. This is the ultimate power of demography and that begins with first counting what’s there.