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Posted by on Jan 13, 2016 in Business, Economy, Education, Featured, Government, Politics, Science & Technology, Society | 24 comments

Robots, Work, and Income

shutterstock_66131008Robots are coming. Greater numbers and different kinds are being developed to assist or take over every type of work in every field of human endeavor. At some point, computers and robots will be able to do virtually everything humans now do. It is just a matter of time. The world as we know it is changing and governments and people need to adapt. As this happens, there will also be a disconnect between work and wages, and productivity and income. This severing of the bond that has been present for ages will be difficult for many to accept, but it is the way things will be.

How will people derive income if they are unemployed or have a fifteen or twenty hour work week, or even less? Consumption is the backbone of capitalist democracy and people need money if they are going to spend. Will everyone be provided with a base income from government? How will people occupy their free time? And how long will it be before all this occurs, when computers and various sorts of robots replace humans, increase productivity, and reduce jobs. Perhaps the transformation has already started, but so stealthily that few people are aware of it. In Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, the author noted that “the symbiotic relationship between increasing productivity and rising wages began to dissolve in the 1970s. As of 2013, a typical production or non-supervisory worker earned about 13 percent less than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation) even as productivity rose 107 percent” …..In America in the first ten years of the 21st century, no new jobs were created when previously at least 20 percent had been generated in every decade after World War II.

There is no historical precedent for societies needing only a small percentage of its population having to work in order to maintain or advance its standard of living. In fact, an eight hour day and a forty hour week that are fairly standard in America for most workers is of relatively recent vintage. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many workers toiled twelve hours daily and six days a week to earn subsistence wages. In France now, and some other nations, a seven hour day and thirty-five hour week is the norm in many industries. Perhaps to keep unemployment at bay as computers and robotics improve, nations will gradually decrease to a twenty-hour work week or even less. And maybe there will be no choice other than having fewer people working.

However, considering man’s evolutionary process, it may not be emotionally healthy for people to eschew productive labor and have no objectives or goals. Perhaps given this situation, more individuals will be involved in creative endeavors, with an explosion of artists, writers, musicians, and so forth. An increase in artisanal efforts could occur as well, with organic farming, small restaurants with innovative owner-chefs, handmade furniture makers, potters, and various other craftspeople. Unique handmade goods could become more valuable and in greater demand than those that are mass-produced in factories. Of course, this merely reinforces that work will no longer be necessary for a majority of citizens in order for a society to function. Many people will find things to do that they enjoy and perhaps make some money doing them. But others who are unemployed will not be capable of initiating stimulating individual activities themselves and will be dependent on private organizations or government to keep them occupied with some sort of tasks. (A New York Times article noted last year that handmade goods were in demand and considered chic, especially if they were produced locally. They represented upper-middle class values, were supportive of artisans and reduced one’s carbon footprint.)

This metamorphosis will occur not only in western developed nations but over time will be a global phenomenon. Third-world countries will also become fully computerized and roboticized over the years, finding that cheaper than their once-cheap labor.

Perhaps some people will spend more time on their educations, then devote their lives to arcane areas of research that interests them and a small coterie of enthusiasts. Perhaps a devotion to games or to charitable efforts. Perhaps an obsession with sports, actively or passively. There will be time for everything. However, though people will be living longer and healthier lives, the world will need fewer of them for the fewer jobs that require human roles, and nations may institute mandatory birth control to curb their populations as China had previously done. One possible benefit of this is that global warming may be reduced as the total number of the earth’s inhabitants drop.

Though the time-line is unclear, at some point all states will undergo major transformations that will eliminate a large percentage of work and jobs, and challenge concepts of democracy. Is a minimum living income for everyone an answer to the increased unemployment that lies ahead? Are mandatory national service or make-work jobs solutions for some countries? Or perhaps to reduce social unrest, nations will limit the use of robots and computers to keep their citizens working. Of course, that will make their products more expensive and less competitive.

Every nation needs to prepare for the changes that are coming. Think tanks, workshops, corporations, NGOs, and government agencies must delve into the problem and find ways to make life tolerable with work no longer necessary for most of the world’s inhabitants. The Finish government is already considering a universal basic income (U.B.I.) for every adult and Switzerland will have a referendum on this concept this year. The Dutch city of Utrecht will try a pilot program of basic income and Canada’s Liberal Party is also reflecting on a similar idea. Though unemployment has not yet reached a tipping point, it is only a matter of time before every nation will have to decide how to deal with fewer jobs and less work for their citizens in the years ahead.

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  • STinMN

    I, for one, welcome the increase in robots and automation in general. If it helps lower my standard 55+ hour 6 1/2 day work week, I’m all for it!

    Seriously, in the industry I’m currently employed in (industrial/mobile electronics controls) productivity gains from companies like mine have been rather low, but our customers have seen dramatic productivity increases due to the products we make. But that hasn’t stopped the supplier companies from trying to increase productivity. They do this mainly by cutting staff and increasing workload for the remaining employees, all while increasing the number of projects we are responsible for. At one time I had staff to develop the product, staff to support the product, and staff to build the product. Now I have staff that develops, supports, and builds the product. And works ’round the clock. But our customers see huge productivity gains, and huge profit gains, from the automation solutions we provide.

    The working world has quickly divided into those that create being overloaded, and those that produce being eliminated. Unfortunately the business experts have been very slow to realize that those that consume have traditionally been those that produce, and if they are eliminated, slowly they lose their reason to produce.

    • I too have been there – a salaried slave. In many cases it’s not just productivity increases but in this hi-tech economy robots can perform tasks mere humans can’t do.
      I was a manufacturing engineer in the electronics industry for several decades. I saw it go from point to point wiring to industrial robots putting on parts I couldn’t even see with the naked eye.
      How we deal with this is really a social and political problem rather than an economic one. It will probably require the dreaded income redistribution.

  • JSpencer

    As the old saying goes, the idle brain is the devil’s playground. I don’t see how increasing the population of indolent people will improve society, either mentally or physically. Of course increased automation will make some people very wealthy, but all people need to feel they are of value. Not saying all automation is bad, but a lot of people sitting around doing nothing is a wasted resource.

    • Some of that problem can be resolved by projects to fix our rapidly disintegrating infrastructure and then maintaining afterwords. Most of those jobs will require real people. This of course will require increased taxes and in a sense be income redistribution but people will be working.

      • JSpencer

        Good point Ron. There’s a lot of work that needs doing if only we get our priorities right. As for “income redistribution”, I think a good contemporary definition would be “paying people a fair wage”.

  • Slamfu

    They said the exact same thing when we needed less people in agriculture. When clothing and textile makers got machines. That used to employ what, 80-90% of human workers? There are other sectors. New fields of employment will present themselves. The fact people don’t have to sit on the assembly line frees people to do other things.

    I’m not saying some central planning on resource and capital management won’t come into play or be needed, but lets not pretend that we are in some unique moment in time where it has to stay as it is or we are all doomed. Change is a constant.

    • adelinesdad

      You beat me to it. I wonder if you told people two centuries ago that machines would do most of agricultural jobs would be replaced my machines, they might also assume everyone would be unemployed. The fact that there would be new jobs where people act as masters of gigantic machines that make huge amounts of stuff would likely not be conceivable. Much less a more modern world where many people work by staring at magical screens while moving their fingers across rows of keys.

      Technology impacting work is definitely not new. It has not resulted in mass, permanent unemployment before and I see no reason to believe it will this time. We do need to make sure the next generation gets the education they will need for the next generation of work.

      • adelinesdad

        In addition, I think if you told an average worker two centuries ago that they could afford their same quality of life by working a fraction of the time, they might wonder why anyone would pass up the extra discretionary time to work long hours. But it turns out the luxuries of the past become the necessities of the future. From indoor plumbing to MRI machines. I don’t expect that trend to stop either.

  • dduck

    I have a friend that is Director of _______, financial products. Well, they keep shrinking his support help and expanding his duties. He works long hours and is, I would call it trapped.
    What about people that sell things. I sold financial products and the commissions get smaller and the regulations get piled on. I don’t think many people in white collar jobs are working less. And, outside of my apartment building is a guy with a fruit/vegetable cart. He works six days, long hours and freezes in winter. In other words, there are still plenty of jobs, including doctors that must pile on more hours to make the bucks they want and waiters and waitresses and all sorts of jobs , so I don’t see a big problem yet for pre-retirement folks. All that being said, I agree with RAL’s concerns and much study of the subject is needed. Hey, that means more work for the work study industry.

  • dduck

    And what about our elected representatives? Will robots allow them to get back to the jobs we elected them to do instead of begging for money? How nice that would be.

    “…….. but liberated from a fund-raising regime that’s never been more dangerous to our democracy.”

    • JSpencer

      IF we had an honest, effective, and brave congress who were willing to work together, campaign finance reform could be had. Plenty of blame to go around for that failure.

  • Bob Munck

    There’s an awful lot of the use of the passive voice in this article and the comments. Here’s an example: “the symbiotic relationship between increasing productivity and rising wages began to dissolve in the 1970s.” Apparently it’s an unknowable mystery what caused that and why it happened. Several comments have mentioned “income inequality” but only in passing.

    What caused it, IMHO, was the ruthless application of political and fiscal power by the very wealthy to make themselves into the extremely wealthy. They confiscated the wealth produced by increases in productivity unto themselves, stealing it from the workers. We now have a system where “the means of production are owned by the state” (there’s a word for that) except that we haven’t yet admitted that the oligarchy is the state. It’s not too farfetched to note that the workers are also owned by the state.

    The problem that this article discusses might actually be stated more correctly as “what do we do when we find ourselves with more slaves than we need?”

    • BINGO!!! I got five diagonal while reading this comment!!! Woo hoo!

      MMT suggests that we can “solve” the dilemma, but not if the “means of production…” owned by the “oligarchy” is allowed to continue manipulating politics and hoarding the wealth. That typically leads to revolution, new oligarchs, and lots and lots of pain and misery.

  • There will always something new to do… new to create… innovate… It may be a century before we can design a computer with the creativity of the human mind… We understand so little about our own brains, how could we possibily replace ourselves.

    • Bob Munck

      It may be a century before we can design a computer with the creativity of the human mind…

      Maybe, maybe not. Creativity is tricky; it is often impossible to distinguish between creativity and random choice. Consider the snowflake: the physics and chemistry of freezing water allow a fairly small set of patterns to emerge in the process, and for any given flake, a random subset of those patterns actually occur. The result is, 90% of the time, something that’s unique and beautiful. No creativity involved.

      Another example: a tile-laying robot could be given a few simple patterns for laying colored tile in a mosaic. It might produce something attractive 5% or 1% of the time, but you could then have humans looking at the results and identifying the attractive ones. The robot would learn which patterns and combinations of patterns tend to produce attractive results, and gradually get good at it. Sure, you’d have humans in the loop at first, but after awhile they wouldn’t be needed. Is the resulting programmed robot creative?

      I think that the main result of Artificial Intelligence research from the last 50 years is the rule “Don’t even try to reproduce the workings of the human mind.” There are better ways to get the same effect.

  • It’s only a matter of time before robots and computers do most of the work and unemployment soars along with productivity. Whether it is ten, fifty or a hundred years, it will happen. Hiding one’s head in the sand and saying work will expand with the new machines because it always has in the past, will not change things. Governments must decide how the unemployed or underemployed will be paid. Is a guaranteed income for everyone the answer? Inequality in democratic societies with the increasing concentration of wealth is another issue that must be addressed though it will be difficult because of the political power the very affluent have amassed.

    • GrantS

      As pessimistic as it is, I also believe this. Robots and good programming will go a long way to eliminate a lot of jobs. Saying it will be replaced with another industry assumes another industry will be needed. Humans have plenty of needs, but those are likely diminishing with Westernized society and current technology. It’s been noted people don’t get happier with more money once $75k-$80K / year is reached. This is the income where most needs are met and only bigger houses and more expensive cars become goals.

      • Slamfu

        Technological advances have always displaced labor intensive workers. I’m sure an ancient Roman stonecutter or quarry worker would have no understanding of someone who makes their living writing a popular blog, but that doesn’t prevent such things from coming about. To think that this is any different is just kinda, well I don’t know, silly. We find new things to do. Saying there there won’t be work is like saying there isn’t anything we can possibly do that we aren’t doing now. Makes about as much sense as the old saw, probably not true, about someone saying in the 19th Century we can close down the patent office because everything useful will have been invented in the next few years.

    • adelinesdad

      How is it hiding one’s head in the sand to ask why the workforce won’t or can’t adapt to this technological shift as it has every other? What is fundamentally different about this time? A lot of the work that is now done by humans will be done my machines in the future. This has been true since the beginning of humans. We’ve found new work, had that work replaced, and over and over again many many times already. I agree with slamfu and would use another analogy: it’s like seeing the sun setting and assuming we’ll never have daylight again.

  • dduck

    What’s the fastest growing are the “oldest old”. What do they need, they need careful care. Imagine that cute robot giving you a sponge bath and taking you to the park. I can’t.

    • I’d be cool with that… as long as it’s a cute robot. 😉

      • dduck

        And heated appendages (hands), for me.

  • We have been through this before- and we got civil war and then the gilded age, two world wars… Veterans marching on Washington, and finally- the New Deal. I think that what is being ignored is that when government didn’t respond, there was large civil disruption and a rise in demagogues. This is something I find incredibly frustrating n our current politics. We know the solutions- we have used them before. We know the consequences of inaction- globally. The choices seem basic to me, domestic programs by the government- infrastructure, education, research, adjusting the work week, (Obama has worked on some of the manipulations of our over time rules), workers rights in general and enforcement of anti monopoly laws… The other choice is large scale wars to decimate populations and buy some time.
    All in all, lately it seems ‘vive la revolutione’ is headed our way. Trump on one side/ Bernie on the other.

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