Technology and jobs ‰ÛÓ part 2

Last week, we talked about how technological progress has historically been good for pretty much everyone, but contemporary advancements may be different. Why? Because the jobs that are getting replaced are increasingly complex. It’s typically cheaper to buy a machine than hire a person, especially when that machine can do the job more effectively. As a result, more and more people are finding themselves out of work, and lacking the skills to successfully navigate the increasingly mechanized economy. I left off last week with the unfortunate hypothesis that is being championed by a diverse group of experts that asserts that this is only going to get worse.

We are trying to avoid a world filled with advanced technology juxtaposed against a society that is polarized and sickly. Education is the first line of defence against such a future, and experts are adamant that we have to reform the system and prepare youth for an economy that requires a different set of skills. The current education system was designed for a job market that heavily features the mid-level jobs that are abundant today. What experts are suggesting is changing education to better prepare students for jobs that complement technology.

While this approach may seem like a glowing endorsement for the “get everyone a STEM degree” philosophy advocated by many in the tech industry, it’s actually a lot broader than that. The type of thinking that will set people apart from their artificially-intelligent counterparts is based in creativity and social skills and is by no means bound to STEM work. Artists, counsellors, therapists, and other professions that rely on people skills, creativity, and emotion could — at least conceptually — flourish.

Education is only a piece of the larger socio-economic puzzle. Reform would take years and no one has a tangible plan that lays out how we’re going to get there. Regardless of how effectively the school system prepares students for the new world of work, the income gap is liable to grow substantially before it shrinks.

A popular idea that is being championed by a diverse range of advocates including Silicon Valley venture capitalists, liberals in Canada and the U.S. and — perhaps most surprisingly — famous right-wing leaders such as Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman, is universal basic income (UBI).

There is some disagreement over how UBI should function, but for now we’ll assume it works by sending everyone, regardless of income, a cheque for a set amount. Beside the notable benefit of instantly raising millions of people (in the U.S.) above the poverty line, supporters of this policy argue that it would give people more freedom to pursue what they want because of the guaranteed safety net and healthy income supplement. It could also give low-wage employees leverage over large corporate employers such as Walmart or McDonald’s by allowing them to walk away from their jobs without fear of going hungry.

Opponents of UBI assert that giving people a guaranteed income would de-incentivize them, resulting in a large portion of the population simply not working. It is also possible that without an incentive to pay workers a living wage, the large corporations mentioned above would actually lower the salaries of their employees. There are additional economic concerns that have been raised by critics of UBI that I won’t get into here.

The specifics of practically implementing UBI are still vague. For example, some argue that it should completely replace existing welfare systems, whereas others believe that some existing programs should remain in place (this is obviously dependent on the country as well). There is also a discrepancy over whether UBI should go out to everyone or whether it should supplement the income of only those below a threshold.

UBI is one of many ways to more effectively redistribute wealth. There are countless other combinations of education reform, job creation, and social policy that could result in the income gap closing.

Ultimately, the most effective short-term strategy for avoiding extreme economic polarization is raising awareness of the issue. In the past few years, there has been an ever-increasing stream of coverage on automation, artificial intelligence, UBI, and other topics. The more decision makers, corporations, and the public know, the more effectively we can tackle the problem. The world has faced tougher challenges in the past; there is no reason to think that we can’t overcome this one.

I’ve given a very cursory overview of this topic but I encourage you to do some research on your own. These issues (especially UBI) are very complex and go much deeper than what I’ve presented here.