Why the working class should welcome automation

By Disha Rawal 

If the world’s technological leaders are to be believed, professions like that of cab-drivers are soon going to be in danger. The combined forces of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data are reportedly going to take over 47 percent of jobs in the US. As per the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a left-centre oriented British think tank, these developments may widen the rich-poor gap in the United Kingdom. With the pace and scale of these technological changes, it is important to assess what, in totality, might be their impact and how regulators can respond.

Why automation?

In the same report, IPPR found that automation could, in fact, raise productivity growth by 1.4 percent a year, increasing it to 10 percent by 2030 in the UK. There are crucial strides that AI can make in areas, like healthcare, by not only improving efficiency but also accuracy. For example, certain software applications have been proven to be more effective than physicians in identifying tumours in scans.

Past trends inform us that technological revolutions are always believed to destroy jobs, but end up increasing efficiency exponentially and hence increasing the number of jobs available, as well. This fear probably worked in the mind of Queen Elizabeth I, when she denied patenting new weaving technologies in the 19th century. However, these very technologies led to the number of factory weavers being increased four times by the end of the century. The last IT revolution itself phased out the jobs of accountants, clerks, typists among many others. However, simultaneously, the productivity boom increased economic activity to such a large extent that over the long run, employment adjusted to even higher levels.

In fact, currently, we are probably at a juncture where we need a productivity augmentation. Experts have pointed out that one of the biggest factors that are impeding is a ‘Goldilocks Economy’ (high growth, low inflation). Globally, it is the lack of room for increasing productivity. Declining birth rates are globally reducing the strength of the workforce. Hence, further growth would require each worker being more productive than they are currently.

The case of displaced workers

As mentioned above, technological progress has historically created more jobs than it has destroyed. Till now, the impact has largely been a concentration of employment in jobs that require a lot of brain-work, thus laying a greater stress on cognitive skills. This has been concomitant with a greater emphasis on higher education, technical skills and access to technology. Physically demanding jobs are increasingly being replaced by capital, and so are monotonous jobs. A frequently cited example of this is what happened when Amazon employed a set of drones in its packaging and shipping outfit. The result was that efficiency increased, and the number of people employed in that segment remained the same.

So one perspective on AI is that it will create a temporary shock, and then the labour markets would adjust to absorb the supply. However, let us see what the industrial revolution did to manufacturing. It essentially broke it down into its various components and re-aligned labour around it.  This is because the intelligence that powered the processes was only possessed by humans.

In our scenario, the thinking job will also be done by machines. So wealth will be concentrated with highly skilled, highly educated workers who can construct these machines, and with the owners of this capital. That is the inequality that the IPPR study is pointing out to. The study also points out to the prospect of deepened gender inequality, citing that women are usually employed in low skill jobs. However, the problem behind that is not AI, it is the deep-rooted power gradient between the genders that exists in both Western and Eastern cultures.

So, what will the rest of the people get engaged in? There is an increasing possibility that they will be engaged in more emotive, artistic and creative fields. You may find music therapists, more life coaches, and more gymnasts. Your cab driver may not be operating at his optimum capacity—because he is not in a profession which he enjoys. With automation coming in, he will either shift to a job more suited to him, or he will be out of business.

The biggest pre-condition to labour adjustment is: Education must outpace technology. In the likely case that this does not actually happen, governments must seriously consider the possibility of providing a Universal Basic Income. The Indian Economic Survey has presented this as a viable scheme with unresolved moral debates. A basic income doesn’t guarantee equality in the society. The IPPR study suggests share ownership of firms by employees and trust funds as a remedy. However, these systems often serve to reduce the incentive that firms have to maximize profit—and this is a serious anomaly in a well-oiled capitalist economy.

A new culture

A machine age, where machines do most of the work, humans become detached from the earth and live in electronic bubbles: That is a typical dystopian scene. However, this kind of a culture is an extreme possibility. What you may alternatively see is cheaper goods, cheaper technology, higher education levels, and a renewed importance to thinking, feeling and being human. In fact, tech companies are hiring poets, doctors, psychologists because the bedrock of AI is that it has to come as close to being human-like as possible. So your cab may drive itself, and your cab driver may be working with an entertainment firm, helping them reach more people in more areas. Nobody will be doing repetitive, monotonous jobs. When, how, to what end and till when—we are yet to find out.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay