Get Ready!

The ro­bots are com­ing for our jobs —but there is a silver lin­ing

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - by Andrew Charl­ton and Jim Chalmers

Fu­ture gov­ern­ments will have to deal with a world in which ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and au­to­ma­tion will creep into ev­ery oc­cu­pa­tion, from brick­layer to teacher.

On the screen in front of him is a pro­gram called ‘Ca­reer Voy­age’. Ev­ery year, around 250,000 Aus­tralian Year 10 stu­dents will un­der­take some form of ca­reers guid­ance. “These types of on­line pro­grams are just the be­gin­ning,” ex­plains Jay’s ca­reers coun­sel­lor, Ken Tin­net. “The ba­sic idea is to get stu­dents think­ing about what ac­tiv­i­ties they en­joy … and then help them join the dots to jobs.” Jay’s school is on the out­skirts of Wol­lon­gong, an in­dus­trial heart­land in the Illawarra re­gion of New South Wales. Three out of four stu­dents leav­ing Jay’s school will pur­sue a vo­ca­tional ca­reer. Some plan to fol­low in their par­ents’ foot­steps to be­come car­pen­ters or welders or nurses. But many of the 16-year-olds who knock on Ken’s of­fice door for a 20-minute pep talk about their fu­ture are anx­ious. They don’t know what they want to do. Plenty of stu­dents have a fam­ily mem­ber who has lost their job and strug­gled to find a new one. To add to that, it seems ev­ery day brings with it a new story about how ro­bots are set to take our jobs. Driver­less cars. Al­go­rith­mic jour­nal­ism. Ro­bots that make ham­burg­ers. Med­i­cal ma­chines that read MRI scans. Even, iron­i­cally, au­to­mated ca­reer ad­vice. “Ev­ery­where these stu­dents look it seems that jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing,” Ken laments. This is one of the defin­ing anx­i­eties of the de­vel­oped world. The rapidly chang­ing na­ture of work is one of the key chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties of our time. We need to ad­dress the very real and un­der­stand­able wor­ries peo­ple have about the fu­ture with­out deny­ing our­selves the broader ben­e­fits of tech­no­log­i­cal change. Fu­ture gov­ern­ments will have to deal with a world in which ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and au­to­ma­tion will creep into ev­ery oc­cu­pa­tion, from brick­layer to teacher. We, in turn, will need to pre­pare for a work­ing life that even a few years ago was un­think­able.

Hu­mans have a com­pli­cated emo­tional con­nec­tion with ro­bots – ev­i­dent in its be­ing a re­cur­rent cul­tural trope from Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein to Blade Run­ner and Westworld. We are gripped by a fas­ci­na­tion with ma­chines built in our own im­age, but also by the dread they evoke, the sense they can and will do us harm. The spe­cific fear that ma­chines will steal our jobs is nearly as old as tech­nol­ogy it­self. In 1589, Queen El­iz­a­beth I re­fused to grant the in­ven­tor of a me­chan­i­cal knit­ting ma­chine, known as a “stock­ing frame”, a patent for fear of putting hand-knit­ters out of work. But the idea re­ally be­came a po­tent po­lit­i­cal is­sue in the 20th cen­tury. In 1930, the Bri­tish econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes warned of “tech­no­log­i­cal un­em­ploy­ment ... due to our dis­cov­ery of means of econ­o­miz­ing the use of la­bor out­run­ning the pace at which we can find new uses for la­bor”. The Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Wass­ily Leon­tief pre­dicted in 1952 that labour would be­come “less and less im­por­tant” as new ma­chines made hu­man work­ers re­dun­dant in the same way en­gine tech­nolo­gies had es­sen­tially elim­i­nated the need for horses. In 1935, Pres­i­dent Franklin D Roo­sevelt warned that the US econ­omy might never be able to re­ab­sorb all the work­ers dis­placed by the in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency of ma­chines. Just a few decades later, in the 1960s, Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy called it “a ma­jor do­mes­tic chal­lenge … to main­tain full em­ploy­ment at a time when au­to­ma­tion … is re­plac­ing men”. In 1980, a Time magazine cover ti­tled “The Robot Revo­lu­tion” showed a ten­ta­cled au­tom­a­ton at a con­veyor belt, si­mul­ta­ne­ously weld­ing cars, shear­ing sheep and cre­at­ing minia­ture ma­chines in its own im­age. And ear­lier this year Barack Obama warned in his pres­i­den­tial farewell speech that “the next wave of eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion won’t come from over­seas. It will come from the re­lent­less pace of au­to­ma­tion that makes a lot of good, mid­dle-class jobs ob­so­lete.” These dire pre­dic­tions have been right about one thing: tech­nol­ogy has de­stroyed mil­lions of jobs around the world. As fore­seen by Queen El­iz­a­beth, the stock­ing frames, or at least their suc­ces­sors, even­tu­ally put “frame breaker” Ned Ludd, who later be­came a folk­loric sym­bol to “Lud­dites”, and his fel­low weavers out of work. As ma­chines emerged en masse dur­ing the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, they re­placed laun­dry maids, black­smiths and thou­sands of other oc­cu­pa­tions. Ma­chines in agri­cul­ture elim­i­nated more than nine out of ev­ery ten farm jobs, with agri­cul­tural em­ploy­ment go­ing from be­ing the main oc­cu­pa­tion of more than 40% of the pop­u­la­tion at the start of the 20th cen­tury to just 2% by its end. In our life­times, of­fice tech­nol­ogy – pho­to­copiers,

fax ma­chines, per­sonal com­put­ers, emails, ac­count­ing soft­ware and cloud com­put­ing – has au­to­mated many ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks. The sec­re­tar­ial hutches, switch­board desks, typ­ing pools and fil­ing cab­i­nets can oc­ca­sion­ally still be found in old of­fice build­ings, but the jobs are gone. Yet the fears of mass un­em­ploy­ment haven’t come to pass. It seems the gloomy sooth­say­ers didn’t over­es­ti­mate the ca­pa­bil­ity of ma­chines; they un­der­es­ti­mated hu­man ca­pac­ity to change ex­ist­ing jobs and cre­ate new ones.

Walk in the door of the new ANZ Bank flag­ship branch in Syd­ney’s Martin Place, crane your neck up­wards, and you’ll no­tice the huge dig­i­tal screen extending three storeys high amid glass and gleam­ing steel. It all feels less a bank branch than a high-tech cathe­dral. Tech­nol­ogy is ev­ery­where. The en­try vestibule is fit­ted with a full range of dig­i­tal bank­ing op­tions. You can use one of the “smart” ATMs to with­draw cash and de­posit cash and che­ques (al­though if you’re still us­ing che­ques, this store prob­a­bly isn’t for you). Twenty-one dig­i­tal screens are laid out around the store, invit­ing cus­tomers to com­plete bank­ing trans­ac­tions on­line. Al­ter­na­tively, they can use the free wi-fi net­work to ac­cess Ap­ple Pay or ANZ’s own bank­ing app, goMoney. A dig­i­tal “banker desk­top” as well as an iPad “dis­cover bar” pro­vide fur­ther in­for­ma­tion. But if you think that all this tech­nol­ogy has made hu­mans re­dun­dant, you’d be wrong. The Martin Place branch still has 15 staff – not many fewer than it’s al­ways had. The role tech­nol­ogy has played in branches like this has grown over time. In the 1960s, the de­vel­op­ment of read­able char­ac­ters led to the first au­to­mated read­er­sorter ma­chines. Soon after that, emerg­ing com­puter tech­nol­ogy was pro­cess­ing trans­ac­tions more ef­fi­ciently than hu­man hands, re­duc­ing the need for large ad­min­is­tra­tive teams. In­stead of dis­pens­ing cash and pro­cess­ing trans­ac­tions, staff be­gan to ex­tend into in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated and higher-value tasks: ap­prov­ing home loans, sell­ing in­sur­ance, giv­ing fi­nan­cial-man­age­ment ad­vice.

The Martin Place ANZ branch is just one work­place, but it il­lus­trates some im­por­tant fea­tures of the chang­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween ma­chines and hu­mans. First, that re­la­tion­ship is not as sim­ple as the “ma­chines will take our jobs” nar­ra­tive sug­gests. The au­to­ma­tion age is not a zero-sum game, in which ma­chines ad­vance and hu­mans re­treat. Rather, ma­chines and hu­mans are racing along­side each other. Ma­chines are im­prov­ing as tech­nol­ogy en­ables them to per­form a grow­ing num­ber of tasks once done by hu­mans (such as with ATMs). But hu­mans are im­prov­ing, too. We are re­lent­lessly cre­at­ing new, com­plex tasks and in­vent­ing new jobs (like fi­nan­cial ad­vice and wealth man­age­ment). Sec­ond, ro­bots can de­stroy hu­man jobs, but they can also cre­ate new ones. In the cold lan­guage of eco­nomics, ma­chines can “sub­sti­tute” for work­ers (for ex­am­ple, when a new ATM re­duces the need for bank tell­ers) but they can also “com­ple­ment” work­ers (for ex­am­ple, when that same ATM cre­ates new work for ar­moured vehicle driv­ers, re­pair tech­ni­cians and other sup­port staff). In fact, fears that em­ploy­ment in re­tail banks would plum­met when ATMs were widely in­stalled in the 1970s and 1980s proved un­founded. Also, US Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics data show that the num­ber of re­tail bank work­ers in the United States in­creased by more than 40% in the three decades since ATMs came into com­mon us­age. Third, and most im­por­tantly, the bank­ing ex­am­ple of­fers us a glimpse into the fu­ture – and the jobs we will likely do as tech­nol­ogy be­comes more ca­pa­ble. Rel­a­tive to ma­chines, hu­mans still have a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage in oc­cu­pa­tions where per­sonal ser­vice and hu­man in­ter­ac­tions are an im­por­tant part of the job. This is ob­vi­ous at the Martin Place bank branch where ma­chines have come to dom­i­nate the sim­pler pro­cess­ing and in­for­ma­tion tasks on the ground floor, while hu­mans have sim­ply moved up­stairs to per­form more com­plex and in­ter­per­sonal tasks. They are now work­ing on the first floor, help­ing cus­tomers with fi­nan­cial prod­ucts in spe­cial­ist ap­point­ment rooms. The sec­ond floor func­tions as an open space for sem­i­nars and fi­nan­cial train­ing. For the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved, none of this change is easy, but we have to ask our­selves: Would we want it any other way? If we could click our fin­gers and re­cover

The au­to­ma­tion age is not a zero-sum game, in which ma­chines ad­vance and hu­mans re­treat. Rather, ma­chines and hu­mans are racing along­side each other.

the tell­ers count­ing out notes by hand, would we do it? Or if we could re­cover the jobs of the comp­tometrists, who man­u­ally checked thou­sands of ad­di­tions and sub­trac­tions, would we want them back? Would you go back even fur­ther and re­hire the elevator op­er­a­tors who would have once stood on their feet for six, or eight, or ten hours per day, fer­ry­ing cus­tomers be­tween floors? Would we want to put the Martin Place lamp­lighters, street sweep­ers, clock winders and traf­fic po­lice back to work?

Ca­reer Voy­age be­gins by ask­ing Jay to record how he feels about dif­fer­ent work-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties. The ac­tiv­ity on the screen is “Con­duct me­chan­i­cal re­pairs on a car” and Jay is in­structed to check one of five boxes to in­di­cate “strong like”, “like”, “don’t mind”, “dis­like” or “strong dis­like”. Paus­ing for a mo­ment, he checks like. The next ac­tiv­ity listed is “sketch car­toons” – Jay checks don’t mind. “Re­pair dig­i­tal cam­eras” – dis­like. “Or­gan­ise the plant­ing of a for­est” – like. After Jay an­swers about a hun­dred of these ques­tions, Ca­reer Voy­age spits out a list of jobs based on his pref­er­ences: elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, air traf­fic con­troller, me­chanic, en­vi­ron­men­tal co­or­di­na­tor and about a dozen oth­ers. Jay seems equiv­o­cal, which, ac­cord­ing to Ken, is not an un­com­mon re­sponse. “These are just a start,” he says. “Most of these kids will have ten to 15 jobs through­out their lives.” But he says se­cur­ing a first job for any but the most “switche­don” kids is dif­fi­cult. While the new high-tech ANZ branch shows how tech­nol­ogy and hu­man work can be mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, the labour mar­ket isn’t al­ways so be­nign. Other fea­tures point to­wards sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges ahead. The first is that work­force change isn’t al­ways smooth, es­pe­cially for the peo­ple af­fected. The dis­placed bank tell­ers weren’t all able to be­come fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers or ATM re­pair tech­ni­cians. More broadly, the dy­namism of the Aus­tralian labour mar­ket has forced mil­lions of work­ers to tran­si­tion from one job to an­other. In the past 25 years, Aus­tralia has lost nearly 100,000 ma­chin­ery op­er­a­tor jobs, nearly 400,000 labour­ers, and nearly 250,000 tech­ni­cians and trades jobs. Cer­tainly, over the same pe­riod, there has been an ex­plo­sion of more than 400,000 new jobs in com­mu­nity and per­sonal ser­vices and 700,000 new jobs across the pro­fes­sional and busi­ness ser­vices. But the tran­si­tion for many work­ers is far from easy. Aus­tralia has a poor record of tran­si­tion­ing work­ers from de­clin­ing to grow­ing oc­cu­pa­tions. Over the same 25-year pe­riod, nearly one in ten un­skilled men who lost their job did not re­turn to the labour force. To­day, more than one in four un­skilled men don’t par­tic­i­pate in the labour mar­ket. The sec­ond chal­lenge is that the cre­ation and de­struc­tion of jobs aren’t al­ways neatly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous, so there will be pe­ri­ods of higher and lower un­em­ploy­ment. Many times, the race be­tween hu­mans and ma­chines has seen one or the other pull ahead. In 1940,

The Lud­dites’ at­tempts to cling onto their liveli­hood by smash­ing the weav­ing frames that had dis­placed them did no good. What ul­ti­mately brought ben­e­fits to work­ing peo­ple in Eng­land was the pro­lif­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy, backed by strong po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions.

when giv­ing his State of the Union ad­dress, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt blamed high job­less­ness on the na­tion’s fail­ure to “[find] jobs faster than in­ven­tion can take them away”. The start of World War Two turned the sur­plus of labour into a short­age. But in the 1960s, un­em­ploy­ment was ris­ing again, caus­ing Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B John­son to con­vene a na­tional com­mis­sion to as­sess the eco­nomic ef­fects of au­to­ma­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change. By the time the com­mis­sion pub­lished its re­port a few years later, the econ­omy was boom­ing once more. The third chal­lenge is that while tech­no­log­i­cal progress has been con­sis­tent with high em­ploy­ment, the same can­not be said for wages. All around us, tech­no­log­i­cal progress is cre­at­ing value, but too lit­tle of that is be­ing shared with work­ers. Prof­its have never been higher. Wages growth has never been lower. For most of the last cen­tury, the grow­ing use of ma­chines in work­places was good for work­ers’ pay pack­ets. In most ad­vanced economies, work­ers took home around two thirds of na­tional in­come, while the own­ers of the ma­chines pock­eted the re­main­ing third. Through­out that time, the num­ber of ma­chines steadily in­creased rel­a­tive to the num­ber of work­ers. Yet the rise of the ma­chines did not cause the work­ers’ share of in­come to de­cline. In fact, work­ers were able to main­tain a sta­ble share of na­tional in­come. Why? Be­cause the work­ers’ share of in­come is equal to the rel­a­tive num­ber of work­ers and ma­chines (the ra­tio of labour to cap­i­tal) mul­ti­plied by their rel­a­tive pay­ments (the ra­tio of wages to cap­i­tal re­turns). Over the 20th cen­tury, these two ra­tios tended to move in op­po­site di­rec­tions – that is, as the num­ber of work­ers fell rel­a­tive to ma­chines, the pro­duc­tiv­ity of each worker in­creased, their wages rose and their share of in­come stayed con­stant. This con­stant labour share was so well es­tab­lished it was de­scribed by in­flu­en­tial Bri­tish econ­o­mist Ni­cholas Kal­dor as one of the “re­mark­able his­tor­i­cal con­stan­cies” of eco­nomics – a prin­ci­ple that un­der­pinned the so­cial ac­cep­tance, even en­cour­age­ment, of ma­chines into the work­place. How­ever, work­ers’ share of na­tional out­put has been fall­ing over the past three decades. In June this year, The Aus­tralia In­sti­tute re­ported that pay­ments to work­ers (in­clud­ing wages, salaries and su­per con­tri­bu­tions) ac­counted for just 46.2% of to­tal gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP): the low­est share in more than 50 years. In Aus­tralia and across other de­vel­oped economies, ro­bots are help­ing the pie to grow, but work­ers aren’t get­ting a larger slice. Econ­o­mists de­bate the rea­sons for the fall­ing labour share of in­come. Thomas Piketty, author of the block­buster tome on global in­equal­ity Cap­i­tal in the Twen­tyFirst Cen­tury, ar­gues that a change in the na­ture of tech­nol­ogy is to blame. Piketty be­lieves that, over time, ma­chines have be­come more au­ton­o­mous and are now more sub­sti­tutes than com­ple­ments for work­ers. Rather than just pro­vid­ing ad­di­tional lever­age for hu­mans in the work­place, ro­bots can think and learn in ways that re­place many hu­man func­tions. If ro­bots don’t cre­ate as much com­ple­men­tary de­mand for labour, in­creas­ing num­bers of ro­bots don’t put up­ward pres­sure on the wages of work­ers. Piketty be­lieves this is con­sis­tent with what we are see­ing now: more ma­chines, lower wages growth. Other econ­o­mists put less weight on the chang­ing sub­sti­tutabil­ity be­tween work­ers and ma­chines. They stress other fac­tors con­tribut­ing to a fall­ing labour share of out­put, such as weak bar­gain­ing power of labour, po­lit­i­cal cap­ture, mo­nop­o­lis­tic be­hav­iour and glob­al­i­sa­tion. But they all agree that in the mod­ern econ­omy the ris­ing tide doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily lift all boats, and the ben­e­fits of tech­nol­ogy are be­com­ing harder to dis­trib­ute.

How do we guard against the risk that tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances will leave some peo­ple be­hind and the gains of progress will not be fairly shared? Gov­ern­ments have im­ple­mented this type of ac­tive pol­icy many times be­fore. There was, for ex­am­ple, es­sen­tially no wages growth from the be­gin­ning of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, circa 1760, un­til around 1850, de­spite its be­ing one of the most in­tense pe­ri­ods of rapid tech­no­log­i­cal change in his­tory. The first ma­chines de­vel­oped led to mas­sive in­creases in pro­duc­tion, but it took time for wages to rise. When they fi­nally did, the in­crease was owed as much to pol­icy and pol­i­tics as to tech­nol­ogy. A new con­cen­tra­tion of fac­tory jobs led to a stronger

A mind­set change is needed, so that politi­cians, busi­nesses and the com­mu­nity see ro­bots, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and other tech­nolo­gies not as a threat, but as a force that can be har­nessed for good.

po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion of work­ers in Bri­tain. In 1833, a pro­fes­sional fac­tory in­spec­torate was set up to reg­u­late safe work­ing con­di­tions. In 1846, the “Corn Laws” – tar­iffs and re­stric­tions on im­ported food – were re­pealed, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing bread prices and rais­ing real wages. The Fac­tory Act 1847 lim­ited work­ing hours in tex­tile mills to ten hours per day for women and teenagers. In 1875, the Master and Ser­vant Acts were re­pealed, elim­i­nat­ing legally en­force­able du­ties of loy­alty and obe­di­ence. Grad­u­ally, de­mand for labour started to rise. At the same time, ma­jor po­lit­i­cal changes oc­curred that dis­trib­uted po­lit­i­cal power more widely and helped spread the ben­e­fits of tech­nol­ogy. The Lud­dites’ at­tempts to cling onto their liveli­hoods by smash­ing the weav­ing frames that had dis­placed them did lit­tle good. What ul­ti­mately brought ben­e­fits to work­ing peo­ple in Eng­land was the pro­lif­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy, backed by strong po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions. The an­swer then, as now, is con­fi­dence in hu­man abil­ity to use tech­nol­ogy for the mu­tual good. There is no eco­nomic rea­son why Aus­tralia can­not ad­dress to­day’s labour mar­ket in­equal­ity and in­crease em­ploy­ment while also en­joy­ing even greater ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy and higher lev­els of pro­duc­tiv­ity. Tech­nolo­gies like au­to­ma­tion, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ro­bot­ics of­fer the op­por­tu­nity to reimag­ine what it means to work. We should ap­proach this task with a sense of op­ti­mism. The chance to rein­vent what we mean by work rep­re­sents a re­mark­able op­por­tu­nity for hu­man­ity. For 10,000 years, since the in­ven­tion of agri­cul­ture, work for most peo­ple has meant dif­fi­cult phys­i­cal tasks: lift­ing, dig­ging, bash­ing, haul­ing, scrub­bing. In the last cen­tury, the fastest grow­ing oc­cu­pa­tions in­volved less man­ual work and more ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks: typ­ing, fil­ing, copy­ing, serv­ing, sell­ing and driv­ing. In their time, the jobs com­prised of these man­ual and rou­tine tasks provided dig­ni­fied, valu­able work to our an­ces­tors. But it shouldn’t di­min­ish the dig­nity or value of that work to say that our gen­er­a­tion is on the cusp of some­thing dif­fer­ent. By re­defin­ing how we want to work, we can cre­ate new jobs for a fu­ture in which hu­mans and ma­chines can com­ple­ment each other. While the ro­bots toil away on the rou­tine and phys­i­cal tasks, hu­mans can fo­cus on in­ter­per­sonal, cre­ative and prob­lem-solv­ing tasks. To en­able this shift, we will need to re-eval­u­ate what we mean by “mean­ing­ful work” and ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of “job” to in­clude many more ac­tiv­i­ties that de­liver value to so­ci­ety but are cur­rently not thought of un­der that rubric. The ques­tion we will need to an­swer is what makes us uniquely hu­man. In the fu­ture, more of us will work with our brains, rather than our hands. We will need to em­brace tech­nol­ogy and boost skills. These are the raw in­gre­di­ents of new job cre­ation. Cur­rently, Aus­tralia is fall­ing be­hind – only 9% of our large com­pa­nies are em­brac­ing au­to­ma­tion. A change in mind­set is needed, so that politi­cians, busi­nesses and the com­mu­nity see ro­bots, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and other tech­nolo­gies not as a threat but as a force that can be har­nessed for good. To sup­port these new jobs, our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem also needs a mas­sive over­haul. At present, more than two-thirds of Aus­tralian stu­dents in uni­ver­si­ties and vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion are en­rolled in cour­ses that seek to pre­pare them for jobs that will most likely dis­ap­pear in com­ing years. There is a huge gap be­tween the skills Aus­tralia’s young peo­ple learn at school and univer­sity and the ones they’ll ac­tu­ally need to suc­ceed in the work­places of the near fu­ture. Con­stant, un­pre­dictable change in the de­mand for skills will be an un­avoid­able fea­ture of to­mor­row’s labour mar­ket. We can­not pre­tend that the tran­si­tion from old to new jobs will be seam­less, that work­ers will be able to trade their hard hats for health care jobs eas­ily. New labour mar­ket ap­proaches will be needed that help work­ers ad­just to the new re­al­ity, in­clud­ing job train­ing, skills-match­ing pro­grams and re­lo­ca­tion as­sis­tance. Fi­nally, we will need to en­sure fair­ness. In a fast-chang­ing labour mar­ket, strong in­sti­tu­tions will safeguard con­di­tions and en­sure that pro­duc­tiv­ity gains are dis­trib­uted fairly to work­ers. These in­sti­tu­tions will need to be sup­ported by or­gan­ised work­ers who can main­tain a fair bal­ance of power in the work­place. As the his­to­rian Colin Gor­don has ob­served, labour’s share of in­come has fallen most rapidly in those sec­tors where “union pres­ence with­ered, not where com­put­ers dis­placed la­bor”.

Com­pany lead­ers and work­ers should find com­mon cause in their re­sponse to tech­nol­ogy. Ul­ti­mately, de­spite sit­ting on op­po­site ends of the wage-bar­gain­ing ta­ble, nei­ther side ben­e­fits if the other gets too far ahead. A story of lead­ing Amer­i­can union­ist Wal­ter Reuther has it that Henry Ford II, grand­son of the fa­mous au­tomaker’s founder, once asked him dur­ing a visit at a newly built and highly au­to­mated car fac­tory: “How are you go­ing to get those ro­bots to pay your union dues?” To which Reuther replied: “Henry, how are you go­ing to get them to buy your cars?” The cur­rent fash­ion for a de­ter­min­is­tic view of his­tory (hu­man and ma­chine labour in con­flict not co­op­er­a­tion) and tech­no­log­i­cal pes­simism (all hu­man labour will be­come in­fe­rior) is lead­ing to policies to try to hold back the tide of au­to­ma­tion. For oth­ers, it’s caus­ing them to give up on the idea of mean­ing­ful hu­man work al­to­gether and pre­pare large parts of the pop­u­la­tion to lead work­less lives. One pro­posal mo­ti­vated by this pes­simism and the per­ceived threat of mass un­em­ploy­ment is a universal ba­sic in­come (UBI). It springs from a be­lief that the in­evitable con­se­quence of tech­no­log­i­cal progress is that most hu­man work­ers will be sit­ting around idle. In fact, many tech en­trepreneurs in Sil­i­con Val­ley and be­yond ap­pear so op­ti­mistic about the supremacy of their emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies that they see no other so­lu­tion than to put the rest of hu­man­ity on gar­den­ing leave with a guar­an­teed monthly cheque of a few thou­sand dol­lars. In re­cent months, Mark Zucker­berg, Elon Musk and Richard Bran­son have all pub­licly talked about the de­sir­abil­ity of a UBI. From their van­tage point, it may in­deed seem like a so­cially re­spon­si­ble way to cush­ion the un­em­ploy­ment ef­fect of au­to­ma­tion and re­duce poverty. How­ever, a UBI would in­evitably worsen in­equal­ity. Mov­ing from the wel­fare sys­tem we have to­day to one hand­ing out large sums to the al­ready well off would be in­her­ently in­equitable. Some UBI pro­po­nents have sug­gested cou­pling the model with a pro­gres­sive in­come tax, but that raises the ques­tion: why not keep the tax and leave the UBI? A UBI also misses the great op­por­tu­nity in the chang­ing labour mar­ket. And be­cause job­less­ness is associated with worse health out­comes, ris­ing crime rates and in­creased sub­stance abuse, pas­sively ac­cept­ing the tale of tech­nol­ogy-driven mass un­em­ploy­ment that can only be fixed with a UBI would also put so­cial sta­bil­ity at risk. Rather than clos­ing the door on hu­man work, tech­nol­ogy of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to con­tin­u­ously rein­vent work and find new jobs. The les­son from his­tory is that we should re­ject policies that take a less op­ti­mistic view of hu­man po­ten­tial.

It doesn’t take much to un­set­tle a teenager in the fi­nal years of high school. There is the fam­ily pres­sure to do well. The talk about house prices be­ing out of reach for their gen­er­a­tion. And the as­ser­tions that an army of ro­bots is wait­ing to take over half of all hu­man jobs in com­ing years don’t help. “These kids are used to peo­ple ham­mer­ing down neg­a­tive mes­sages. It does af­fect their out­look,” Ken Tin­net says. Ev­ery now and again an in­dus­try ex­pert does the rounds at the re­gion’s schools to talk about ca­reer prospects. “Many pre­sen­ters just put up their statis­tics and say, ‘It’s go­ing to be tough’, ‘The labour mar­ket is tough’,” says Ken, who started as the school’s head teacher for vo­ca­tional train­ing al­most two decades ago, and can’t re­mem­ber if things used to be eas­ier back then. So, when one ca­reers ex­pert walked into the school’s au­di­to­rium ear­lier this year and told the fid­gety stu­dent crowd not to worry be­cause there would be lots of jobs in the fu­ture, Ken was pleas­antly sur­prised. “That was re­as­sur­ing,” he says. “It was a mes­sage of hope.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.