Trump, world lead­ers at G-20 sum­mit must tackle ro­bots’ im­pact on our jobs

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - In Depth - BY AN­DRES OP­PEN­HEIMER aop­pen­[email protected]­ami­her­

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 be­cause of the grow­ing use of ro­bots, al­go­rithms and other in­tel­li­gent ma­chines.

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, jour­nal­ists and mem­bers of vir­tu­ally all other pro­fes­sions.

Re­cently, China’s of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency an­nounced the de­but of the first ro­botic tele­vi­sion news an­chor, who looks and talks ex­actly like one of China’s best-known news an­nounc­ers. But un­like a hu­man, the ro­bot has the ad­van­tage of work­ing three shifts and a row, doesn’t take va­ca­tions and never de­mands a raise.

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.

Ar­gen­tine Pres­i­dent Mauri­cio Macri, who will chair the G-20 sum­mit as leader of the host coun­try, told me in a re­cent in­ter­view in Buenos Aires that he placed the fu­ture of jobs at the top of the G-20 meet­ing’s agenda. He said the is­sue will af­fect all coun­tries, re­gard­less of their de­vel­op­ment lev­els.

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 re-in­vent­ing 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 Uber-like 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.

Other ques­tions that surely will come up are whether coun­tries should cre­ate a univer­sal ba­sic in­come for work­ers who will be dis­placed by tech­nol­ogy and whether there should be a tax on ro­bots, as Mi­cro­soft founder Bill Gates has pro­posed.

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.

Don’t miss the “Op­pen­heimer Pre­senta” TV show Sun­days at 8 pm on CNN en Es­pañol.


A Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cer read­ies his M4-style ri­fle as se­cu­rity of­fi­cers clash with pro­test­ers in Jan­uary 2018. The photo was taken by hu­man rights ob­server César Fuentes

Ro­bots have been around for decades, but they are now in­creas­ingly cheaper — and much smarter.

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