Ever since the first vision of a robot appeared on the horizon of mankind, humans have feared that automation will replace the workforce in our dystopian future.
There typically follows a period of reassurance, in which we are compelled to believe that this will be a good thing, and that robots could actually liberate us from the drudgery of daily toil and free us for more enjoyable, cerebral pursuits. Futurist Jerry Kaplan, 63, is among those optimists. He estimates that 90% of Americans will lose their jobs to robots and we should all be happy about it.
“If we can program machines to read x-rays and write news stories, all the better. I say good riddance,” Kaplan said. “Get another job!”
Less discussed is the observation that inequality will be “a dark cloud” over this period of robotic rule. The robots, Kaplan admitted, will be owned by the rich. “The benefits of automation naturally accrue to those who can invest in the new systems, and that’s the people with the money. And why not? Of course they’re reaping the rewards,” he said.
“We don’t have to steal from the rich to give to the poor. We need to find ways to give incentives to entrepreneurs.”
One possible solution to 90% unemployment would be job mortgages, so that people who are displaced by robots can take out loans toward future earnings in unknown jobs. “People should be able to learn new skills by borrowing against future earnings capacity,” he said.
There will be a difficult period of transition during which massive unemployment will sweep the country. “The bad news is it takes time for these kind of things to happen.”
As artificial intelligence becomes ever more intelligent, some in the tech world are getting nervous. The robots are winning complex games and creating art that sells for thousands of dollars. There’s less discussion in Silicon Valley of whether it’s happening and more of what to do now: Y Combinator, a tech investment vehicle whose founder brags about being in the business of creating inequality, recently launched a basic income experiment to give out a small no-strings-attached stipend to people in preparation for an age when there just aren’t enough jobs for humans.
Kaplan was here to give the positive spin on that future. With a PhD in computer science specializing in artificial intelligence and a fellowship at the Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford University Law School, he’s a bonafide expert. His argument for the future of jobs foreshadows how this next industrial revolution – one that is inevitable, one that is facilitated by very smart robots – will be sold to the masses.
“Machines automate tasks, not jobs. Many of these tasks require straightforward logic or hand-eye coordination,” Kaplan said. “If your job requires a narrow set of duties, then indeed your employment is at risk.”
He contrasted licensed nurse duties (a lengthy list of activities that involve empathy and problem solving) with bricklayer duties (laying bricks). Kaplan put up a slide to show what he sees as the future workplace. On the slide is something that looks like Pac-Man eating a lawyer, a driver and a doctor. Behind it, it has spit out “online reputation manager” and blogger.