G-20 sum­mit must tackle ro­bots’ im­pact on our jobs

Belleville News-Democrat - - Opinion - BY AN­DRES OPPENHEIMER Mi­ami Her­ald

When Pres­i­dent Trump and the lead­ers of China, Rus­sia, Ger­many and other ma­jor economies meet in Ar­gentina for the G-20 sum­mit on Nov. 30, they will spend part of their time dis­cussing what will prob­a­bly be one of the world’s most im­por­tant is­sues over the next decade: the fu­ture of jobs.

Granted, it’s an is­sue that – de­spite be­ing the of­fi­cial theme of the meet­ing – will most likely be buried be­hind the head­lines fo­cus­ing on the U.S.China trade dis­pute or the nu­clear threat of North Ko­rea.

But the sum­mit of the G-20, as the group of the world’s 20 big­gest economies is known, is sched­uled to spend at least one of its four ses­sions fo­cused on the com­ing dis­rup­tion in the world la­bor mar­ket. Tens of mil­lions of jobs likely will be lost, and world­wide wages may be fur­ther de­pressed.

A 2013 Ox­ford Univer­sity study pre­dicted that 47 per­cent of ex­ist­ing jobs in the United States are at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing over the next 10 years be­cause of au­to­ma­tion. Sub­se­quent stud­ies by the World Bank es­ti­mated that job losses in emerg­ing coun­tries such as China and Mex­ico will be much big­ger, be­cause they have more man­u­fac­tur­ing fac­to­ries whose work­ers can be eas­ily re­placed by ro­bots.

Fac­tory work­ers aren’t the only ones at risk; so are restau­rant wait­ers, ho­tel concierges, bankers, ac­coun­tants, doc­tors, lawyers and mem­bers of vir­tu­ally all other pro­fes­sions.

Ear­lier this year, Las Ve­gas ho­tel work­ers threat­ened to go on strike be­cause of the grow­ing use of robotic wait­ers and bar­tenders. The ro­bots take meals to guests’ rooms, and robotic bar­men pre­pare casino pa­trons’ drinks – al­legedly much bet­ter than those made by their hu­man coun­ter­parts be­cause the ro­bots are not dis­tracted by cus­tomers while pre­par­ing the drinks.

Granted, ro­bots have been around for decades and have not pro­duced mass un­em­ploy­ment. But they are now in­creas­ingly cheaper – and much smarter. In the past, they were in­di­vid­ual ma­chines. Now, they are con­nected with each other through cloud com­put­ing and can learn from each oth­ers’ mis­takes and ac­com­plish­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to G-20 sum­mit prepara­tory doc­u­ments, while tech­nol­ogy will cre­ate new jobs, there will be an “im­pact on in­equal­ity within and be­tween coun­tries.” Low-skilled work­ers will have a much harder time rein­vent­ing them­selves as data an­a­lysts than en­gi­neers or other high-skilled work­ers.

The sum­mit’s draft doc­u­ments call for coun­tries to make it eas­ier for in­de­pen­dent work­ers to take their so­cial se­cu­rity ben­e­fits from job to job, and even from coun­try to coun­try. As more and more peo­ple work in Uber­like free­lance jobs, coun­tries should seek to pro­tect peo­ple, not jobs, drafters of the doc­u­ment say.

Also, the sum­mit’s draft doc­u­ments say that, “Coun­tries should also en­sure an ap­pro­pri­ate tax­a­tion of the dig­i­tal econ­omy.” Sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries ar­gue that, as e-com­merce and the dig­i­tal econ­omy be­come in­creas­ingly dom­i­nant, there should be a tax on sales of dig­i­tal goods and ser­vices. The United States, home of Ama­zon and other big tech firms, has tra­di­tion­ally op­posed this idea.

It’s time to start ad­dress­ing such ques­tions, what­ever the an­swers. Tech­no­logic ac­cel­er­a­tion is al­ready elim­i­nat­ing many jobs and de­press­ing wages. Even if the G-20 meet­ing does noth­ing more than draw world at­ten­tion to this is­sue, it will be a good start.

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