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Hire the Robots, Free the People

Rohit Talwar

Much of the current debate on automation and robots focuses on the demise of existing jobs across great swathes of economic activity. Article by Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington – Fast Future.

The traditional loss of jobs to automation in manufacturing looks set to accelerate, and the incursion of automation into the service and white collar sectors is gathering momentum. Can automation really replace – as some have predicted – up to 80% or more of existing jobs? And where will this leave HR?

What if we were to experience this most extreme outcome from robotics and automation in the workplace and reach a point where the majority of people become technologically unemployed? How quickly would governments respond? How quickly might society redefine the notion of unemployment to have less negative connotations? What would people do all day?  How would they “make a living,” or would this phrase become meaningless?

Assuming technological unemployment impacts 80-90% of jobs—the most severe forecast – how would the majority of people survive without some form of income?  And what would they do with their time (and the rest of their lives) if not employed?  These questions require a societal response.

A minimum income for all
In twenty years, automation may have created a society where jobs aren’t available or are not being created at the scale necessary to employ the large numbers of people digitised out of work.  Employment would become a rare and specialised activity, creating huge groups of people with no job, no prospects and no income.  Governments would be forced to implement programs to relieve the economic and societal pressures that could arise: how would people buy food, pay rent, obtain education?  Even more so, how would they buy the products and services companies sell?

One of the more humane solutions proposes aggressive public policy to underpin a post-job society with basic income programs, known as Universal Basic Income (UBI) or “Mincome” (“minimum income”) and Universal Basic Services (transport, electricity, education, sanitation, healthcare).  If AI and other forms of smart technology do take over many work functions, the social safety net would need to expand beyond filling temporary gaps to actually forming the basis of the provision of essential needs for most people.

Today’s social safety nets are designed to protect the lowest-earning and non-earning members of the community, mostly on a temporary basis; the nature of unemployment benefits, rehabilitation and job training programs paid for with public funds is that they are intended to put people back to work.

Establishing mincome for all could empower the majority and protect society from collapse due to economic imbalance.  In fact, rather than provide bare subsistence, a mincome might offer the support needed to foster human creativity, problem solving and innovation.  Making sure all the basic needs are met across society would be a necessity in the absence of paying jobs.  This could also provide a huge benefit to society in terms of maximizing human potential.

How will our education systems need to change?
Though future of work predictions are foreboding, they are not death sentences.  Yes, we are already seeing losses in routine white-collar office functions, but we’re also seeing gains in computing, mathematical, architecture, and engineering related roles. Interestingly, social skills — such as persuasion, caregiving, emotional intelligence and teaching—will be in higher demand than narrow technical skills. In other words, there is still a role for the skills used by HR professionals.

In addition, teachers will be in high demand.  Recently UNESCO announced that nearly 70 million more teachers are needed in order to achieve the goal of universal primary and secondary education by 2030.[i]  While AI might perform the logistical and technical aspects of teaching, there is no adequate concept yet for automating the one-on-one support in the classroom.  Automation could make teaching a more attractive and lucrative profession, and drive innovation in schools by enhancing human skills in the classroom. So, rather than panic at the thought of law firms replacing attorneys with ‘robolawyers’ think instead about the opportunity to increase the number of smart people working with children.

What does this mean for education?
For several generations now, formal schooling has occupied the most developmental years of a person’s life under the premise of being preparation for future employment.  Yet, technology trends suggest that the jobs we prepare our children for today won’t be there in ten or twenty years. Instead we should be helping them develop skills like communications, caring, training, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

Without clear-cut jobs to prepare for, future generations, enabled with some form of mincome, would be in a position where experiential and self-guided learning could be more embedded in everyday life and become the new definition of “making a living.”  Rather than spend eight hours a day in classrooms, in preparation for spending eight hours a day on a job, children could go outdoors, explore their communities, travel short and long distances and learn about things they enjoy. Future generations could experience education that preserves humanity, not eliminates it.

There is unlimited potential for humanity in a world where work is mostly performed by machines and algorithms.  One of the most positive responses to automation would be to eliminate social and economic inequality.  In particular, our biggest gifts to future generations would be to redirect resources to ensure all people have what they need to survive, and providing opportunities so that the majority, not the lucky few, get to seek personal fulfilment.  We have a choice in front of us today; use the technology at hand to create massive unemployment and economic inequality or as an enabler of abundance and human potential.


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