Many in the Artificial Intelligence and robotics professions clearly state that their work is toward what has come to be called “weak A.I.” — which is focused more on building tools for helping humans in their work rather than on replacing them. This is clearly the claim of robot manufacturers such as Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots. However weak A.I., or its associated technology, machine learning is becoming an integral component of automation – and it is this automation, something that previously may have been called Business Process Automation, that may explain the high rate of joblessness in many advanced countries some four years into the recovery from recession.
Yet, it is not inconceivable that in the near future current advances in robotics and automation technology will have a bigger impact on employment from the cashless supermarket checkout to security guards; we will have robot roofers’ helpers and A.I. receptionists, robots are increasingly used on farms for milking cows, picking peppers and drones for crop spraying. Advanced algorithms are ‘improving’ financial trading and providing more and more predictive analysis. Insurance and travel tickets are ordered via online automated systems and banks are reducing headcount (and physical sizes) of branches as online banking and ATM’s become pervasive – all created by automated technology. The list of jobs that soon could be, or already can be performed, by robotic and automated technologies is vast, but if you read on I will show how this is likely to greatly benefit humanity.
One of the key questions being asked by senior economists and others: “Is the threat of automation and robotics on employment the most pressing social issue?” This is not new — In his book published in 1995 The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin examined the technological innovations and market-directed forces that were “moving us to the edge of a near workerless world.
Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century. (Introduction page XV)
More recently, the economist Larry Summers who is President Emeritus and Professor at Harvard University, said that the big concern in the economy and split between capital and inequality will be the “devastating consequences of robots, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and the like for those who perform routine tasks.” Adding that all sectors of the workplace are at risk of the advances in “artificial intelligence to replace white-collar as well as blue-collar work will increase rapidly in the years ahead.”
Despite many highlighting the gloom few have spoken of the benefits and offered up good solutions, until now.
Who owns the robots?
One of Larry Summers Harvard colleagues, the economist Professor Richard Freeman, a leading labor economist who also directs the National Bureau of Economic Research, presented a paper in early May with the title: Who owns the robots rules the world.
Freeman is also convinced that robots will displace many from the workplace, offering up the advances in technology from IBM’s Watson preparing recipes (Chef’s beware), to the improvements of robots as anesthetists. He warns:
Behind the headlines are advances in artificial intelligence that create machines that are far better substitutes for human intelligence than seemed possible just a few years ago
Robots can increasingly substitute for workers, even highly skilled professionals.
The main message of Professor Freeman is that ‘workers (you and me) need to ensure that they have some other income from capital and not just income from work. To own equity stakes, in companies that will thrive, so as to receive dividends and increased wealth, to own the land or properties to receive rent:
As companies substitute machines and computers for human activity, workers need to own part of the capital stock that substitutes for them to benefit from these new “robot” technologies. Workers could own shares of the firm, hold stock options, or be paid in part from the profits. Without ownership stakes, workers will become serfs working on behalf of the robots’ overlords. Governments could tax the wealthy capital owners and redistribute income to workers, but that is not the direction societies are moving in. Workers need to own capital rather than rely on government income redistribution policies.
He points to the fact that Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) and other executives are paid stock options, restricted stock grants, and bonuses tied to capital income:
It is telling that the persons with the greatest power in corporations prefer to be paid as owners rather than as wage and salary workers.
He does not believe it is far fetched that robots and associated technologies will increasingly take more of the jobs, dismissing the hype claim and indicating this is a reality. He encourages people to own the robots, or at least have their capital in someway invested so that it provides an income, failing to do so will leave those with no ‘robot ownership’ behind:
The “who-owns-the-robots-rules-the-world” thesis is simple: Regardless of whether technological advance is labor-saving or capital-saving, skill-biased or not, and regardless of the speed with which robots or other machines approach or exceed human skill sets, the key to the effect of the new technologies on the well-being of people around the world is who owns the technologies.
Is it any wonder so many tech companies have good stock options? Tech employees see first hand the impact on jobs as their solutions are rolled out. Freeman emphasizes the need for all employees to be stock-owners in their companies (or maybe have John Lewis style partnerships?).
There is only one solution to the challenge posed by computerizing skill through machines. That is for you, me, all of us to have a substantial ownership stake in the robot machines that will compete with us for our jobs and be the vehicle for capital’s share of production. We must earn a substantial part of our incomes from capital ownership rather than from working. Unless workers earn income from capital as well as from labor, the trend toward a more unequal income distribution is likely to continue, and the world will increasingly turn into a new form of economic feudalism. We have to widen the ownership of business capital if we hope to prevent such a polarization of our economies.
Freeman is right, the factor that potentially has the greatest economic benefit in dealing with robotization and the falling share of labor income is employee ownership, as we help build the business we work for — the more skin (equity) we have in the game the better.
A new paradigm
My own thoughts are that we are at the cusp, or in fact quite advanced, in a techno-economic paradigm, which is breaking the organizational habits in technology, the economy, management and social institutions.
In addition to Freeman’s call for us to seek to ‘own the robots,’ I also see a great positive, and as I have written before: I believe the attempt to better the world for all humanity is hidden somewhere within the automated robotic economy.
The robot overlords will need to ensure there is still a flow of finance to people or the goods they make with their automated machines will have no buyers. Organizations (and indeed individuals) that increasingly see vast profits from the machine economy are creating more and more jobs in the Not For Profit sector. Bill Gates has possibly created thousands of jobs as he uses his wealth for humanitarian and educational purposes. Other tech beneficiaries, and billionaires are putting their money to work in ways that help others — and creating jobs in the process.
It is said the Not For Profit (NFP) sector worldwide already surpasses US$ 2 trillion. This will grow considerably and I believe it will become a major sector of job growth. Already we see this playing out as NFP’s such as Google.org seeks to solve humanities problems and bring together brain and brawn, creating jobs and giving hope to many.
Whilst technology will be a big factor in tearing jobs apart, the wealth stream created by the robot owners will likely also put society back together, and in so doing help build a better, stronger, more resilient and altruistic society.
Picture credit Google.org