There is an understandable fear among many that the changes that robots will bring will completely overwhelm society as we know it, bringing mass unemployment and widespread misery. While I personally think that such fears are overblown, I am also cognizant of the fact that yes, robots will bring plenty of disruption – and yes, there will potentially be many people who are affected adversely. Consequently, it’s important to address incipient issues as early as possible, to ensure that no humans are left behind.
The current state of automation is often compared to the Industrial Revolution, in that the technology promises to completely transform how people work, how goods are made, and even how cities are set up. Despite the vast advances in manufacturing and technology achieved during the Industrial Revolution, there is no denying that it also left workers vulnerable to exploitation, bodily harm, and extremely low wages. Eventually, governments intervened to improve working conditions by passing labor laws and instituting some oversight, thus ensuring that employees enjoyed some measure of protection.
Taking steps ahead of disruption
Today’s governments also need to take steps, but in this case, it must be before automation’s full effects are felt. Currently, most robots are used to take over tasks that people find tedious or repetitive, such as tightening a bolt on a car assembly line, or providing basic navigational information to people visiting a shopping mall. In other words, robots are currently not at a sophisticated enough level to take over the entirety of someone’s job function.
But who knows how long this will last? There are already companies looking to develop robots (or, at the very least, software) that can perform certain cognitive tasks to the same degree as humans. OpenAI, the non-profit AI research company, recently announced it had managed to train a language model to produce paragraphs of text that sound like they’ve been written by humans. That same language model is also capable of “rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering, and summarization” – in other words, functionalities that were previously only the domain of humans. OpenAI has declined to release the full training model, due to concerns that it will be used in malicious ways, but there are plenty of other companies who see such algorithms as a way to speed up the replacement of humans in their organizations.
More access to education
One step governments can take to mitigate the potential downsides of robotic adoption is to offer expanded (and affordable) access to higher education. In the short term, this gives people the opportunity to learn practical skills, skills that would make it harder for them to be replaced by a machine. A report from McKinsey notes that the types of work activities that are “least susceptible” to automation are those that require applying expertise or managing others; while education might not make a difference in the case of the latter, it’s certainly a good way of developing expertise in a certain subject area.
But what about those people whose jobs are currently being affected by automation, who have neither the time nor resources to go back to school? In their case, having access to mid-career job retraining is vital, because it gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and apply themselves to different positions. In an ideal world, these retraining programs would be offered by the company itself to give its employees the option of advancing within the organization. Nor am I alone in this view: 58% of executives polled by McKinsey say that corporations should be the ones to take the lead in reducing the potential skills gap.
But no matter how well you plan for something, unforeseen circumstances inevitably arise. Simply giving more people access to higher education doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be able to find well-paying jobs when they graduate. Nor will retraining programs be able to save every worker whose job is lost to automation. Consequently, there is a strong need to improve social safety nets. Implementing universal basic income, for example, will go a long way towards ensuring that everyone is able to afford the necessities for living, and help ease the general anxiety that comes with joblessness and widespread change. Expanded access to affordable healthcare is another measure that would reduce the pressure on the un- or underemployed.
Every government is entitled to make their own decisions on how they want to approach this issue. While there is no question that the government needs to get involved, there is also a need for corporations to do their part, whether by making sure their workers are prepared for automation or by implementing re-educating programs that will help train them for more advanced roles. Robots will bring plenty of benefits to society, but society also has to be prepared to address the consequences.