By Dennis Mangrobang
I was fortunate to be able to present, “Robotics, Automation, and Our Changing Society,” as part of the Beyond the Headlines series at OLLI@UCLA.
Automation is changing our society in several ways. Driverless cars will cause our infrastructure to change (fewer roadway lanes, parking lots, etc.). Social robots will change our social interaction. Manufacturing will re-shore back to the USA, and become more localized worldwide. One of the most important changes occurring now is job loss caused by automation.
The day after the presentation, I asked Mary Ann Wilson, OLLI Program Coordinator, if she had received any feedback. She told me that one member told her that he thought the talk was going to be boring but it wasn’t. It was; however, depressing, just because a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. I appreciated receiving this feedback.
I believe the current trajectory of the impact of automation on employment and inequality is negative. For example, about 3% of all full-time U.S. jobs primarily involve driving (e.g. trucks, buses, taxis). Due to rapid advances in driverless vehicles, those jobs are at risk in the next few years. Just automating driving will create a big employment problem, considering that normal U.S. unemployment rates are around 5%, very high unemployment is around 10%, and the unemployment rate during the Great Depression peaked at around 25%. This is just the tip of the iceberg. However, I am also hopeful that we can steer this along a positive path, and I hope to better communicate this in my future presentations.
Automation will cause job loss. Should this be depressing or encouraging? It depends on how we handle the situation and how an individual values their job as part of their life.
If you or your friend won the lottery or were born into a wealthy family, would you be depressed about this? Probably not, at least not initially. With sufficient wealth, you could continue working in your current job or do something else. I believe most of us would do something else. The long-term outcome of your life would depend on what else you chose to do, but at least you would have more options, such as attending more OLLI courses.
The effect of losing your job because of automation could be like winning the lottery, or being born into a wealthy family.
The key to winning this automation lottery is capital ownership. If you own the robot that took your job, that is a good thing. If somebody else owns that robot, it is a bad thing for you. We should all own automation.
Unfortunately, most of us have limited ownership of automation through our stock market investments in companies that use automation. The majority of capital ownership is now concentrated within a small segment of our society, a situation called wealth inequality. With this current situation, automation is enabling inequality to grow, and at an increasing rate. More automation creates more job loss and more wealth concentration to the owners of capital.
What can be done? The solution that is most frequently proposed is universal basic income (UBI), which would tax the owners of automation, and redistribute this income to everyone. It depresses me that people, politicians in particular, think this is a practical way to address the problem. It could work in theory, but I am skeptical. The owners of capital will fight against this. They are the ones who wield political power and will shape this policy if implemented. If you cannot find a job, how likely is it that a program like this will provide what you need? Universal basic income would be better than doing nothing, but I think we can do better.
A better solution is to solve the root cause of the problem, which is capital ownership. We should transition the ownership of automation to a broader segment of our society. One way to accomplish this is though 100% employee-owned companies that are focused on developing and using automation. Initially, your jobs at such a company would be the same as investor-owned companies, and with similar pay. However, the income derived from the deployment of capital would go to the employee/owners, and not passive investors. Employees could invest capital to join, or they could buy in though sweat equity. Employee ownership could have other significant benefits. Employee/owners would decide what the company policies should be. They could decide to not move the company to another country, not to pollute the ground water in their community, and not to award their CEO excessive compensation for implementing short-term policies that cause long-term harm. And, they could decide to voluntarily share the growing pool of capital with others, and how to wield the political power of their company.
My goal is to create a company like this, and I hope people will want to join or build other companies based on this concept. I encourage you to think about these issues and possible solutions, and take direct action.
Lifelong ownership of automation could be very positive, and enable more lifelong learning for people of all ages. OLLI power!
I have compiled a list of resources related to the presentation. Whether you attended or not, I hope you will find them useful. You may view these at: https://flexwest.com/robotsAndOurChangingSociety.html