Living and working with robots

There’s something in the air. A new debate, or maybe a new level in an ongoing discussion about the role of citizens in the economy, or rather of the economy in citizens’ lives. The blunt, over-simplified question that drives this debate is: What happens if robots take away all the jobs? A more nuanced phrasing might be: What do we consider a worthy use of humans’ time and energy, and what relationship do we strive to establish between this time and energy on one side and economic, psychological, and societal benefits on the other?

Understanding unintended consequences of technology might be the key to navigation the 21st century. Here: Douglas Coupland’s Micro Manifestos
These discussions touch on common ground, with slightly different focus or coming in from different disciplines.

These discussions pop up almost daily in my peer group, across media, across expert discussions of all disciplines — often disguised as isolated arguments about economics, technology, policy, computer science, philosophy, or design. But to a large degree these discussions touch on common ground, with slightly different focus or coming in from different disciplines.

In writing this I’m trying to sharpen my thinking and capture how it evolves, essentially by thinking out loud; and to contribute a perspective to this discussion that I hope can be useful.

What do I bring to the table?

I studied communication science and political science, and hold an M.A. from Freie Universität in communications science with a double major of comms & political science, as well as a Master of Media Practice, so I have a somewhat solid understanding of political history and processes as well as communications, which helps understand how media work and how shared understanding of political processes is negotiated on a societal level.

In my work I focus a lot on the impact of technology on society, businesses, and individuals, and I work with large organizations to help them navigate this field.

In my work I focus a lot on the impact of technology on society, businesses, and individuals, and I work with large organizations to help them navigate this field. Recent examples of this include thinking about smart cities for the German federal government, and thinking about IoT policy for Google. I also co-founded ThingsCon, a conference-turned-community-and-not-for-profit, that explores ethical questions of connected technology and aims to foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible IoT.

So this is where I’m coming from in my thinking. I’d like to add that these thoughts come from an impetus to improve and evolve a system that has been failing for many and — if any of my analysis is right — will fail for massively more people, rather than trying to build a new one: evolution, not revolution.

This blog post (or potentially series of blog posts) is me thinking out loud: Sharing thoughts in the open, but also in the rough. Tread gently.

Manifest (here seen at Vitra design museum) has been algorithmically generating manifestos since 2008.

Mega trends at play

Let’s look at some mega trends at play. These are the vectors that have been shaping society and will continue to shape society at increasing rates.

In the richer, highly industrialized countries per-capita productivity has been rising steadily for decades (centuries, even). This rise of productivity and value-creation is driven largely by automation. In their paper “Robots at Work” (Graetz & Michaels, 2015, PDF) the authors “… find that industrial robots increased both labor productivity and value added. (…) We calculate that the increased use of robots raised countries’ average growth rates by about 0.37 percentage points. We also find that robots increased both wages and total factor productivity.” To put this 0.37 percent rise in context, “it represents 10% of total GDP growth in the countries studied.”

More value created and captured means a stronger economy. However, the economic contributions and benefits aren’t equally distributed.

On the macro level, this leads to a net positive for these countries: More value created and captured means a stronger economy. However, the economic contributions and benefits aren’t equally distributed. For example, while incomes across the income distribution grew “nearly at the same pace” from the 1940s to early 1970s, since the 1970s the wealth gap has been consistently widening in the US.

Source: The Economist

Note: It seems necessary to point out that today in most countries there aren’t enough jobs as it is, hence increasing chunks of society have limited access to both the economic and status-related benefits of jobs. Only today’s framing of the issue often puts the burden on the impacted individuals, not society or the economy. Where blame is assigned to institutions, see Populism.

It would seem that increasingly less human laborers are needed to perform these industrial value-creating tasks. To be fair, though, research so far neither confirms nor denies job losses through automation. From that same HBR article quoted above, interpreting the research of Graetz & Michaels (also quoted above), there isn’t necessarily a direct link between automation and job loss. Germany, whose economy is based hugely on automotive manufacturing and export (one of the most robot-intense industries) installed far more robots relatively to the US, yet shed a lot less manufacturing jobs. However, the researchers found “skill-biased impacts. (…) while robots don’t seem to be causing net job losses, they do seem to change the sort of workers that are in demand.”

This is what a White House paper titled “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy” (full report as PDF, p. 9) has to say:

“Combined, AI and robotics will give rise to smarter machines that can perform more sophisticated functions than ever before and erode some of the advantages that humans have exercised. This will permit automation of many tasks now performed by human workers and could change the shape of the labor market and human activity. These transformations may open up new opportunities for individuals, the economy, and society, but they may also foreclose opportunities that are currently essential to the livelihoods of many Americans.” (Needless to say, while this report focuses on the US, the effects will be similar everywhere.)

This is a cracker ad, yet it features three humanoid robots and a Roomba, because this is Shenzhen (Nov 2016).

By the way, automation won’t necessarily only apply to manufacturing but a huge range of other jobs soon, including journalism, legal, and creative professions. From an Economist special report on Artificial Intelligence’s impact on jobs: “What determines vulnerability to automation, experts say, is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine. (…) 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation. In particular, they warned that most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support” are likely to be substituted, and the same applies to people working in sales and services.

Extrapolating even ever-so-slightly it’s obvious that we might see more tasks performed by robots (both the hardware and the software type), and hence less humans will be needed to do them.

(I’d argue that in isolation that’s not necessarily a bad thing as many of these jobs don’t inherently bring fulfillment for humans, so as long as these people are economically secure they might not even mind not having to perform these tasks. But more on that later, because it’s not something we can look at in isolation. Context and system-level thinking is key.)

Simultaneously, in the mid-term this process might offer poorer countries an opportunity. As part of the low-wage jobs in highly-industrialized countries might be made redundant by robots, parts might be more easily and much more cheaply moved to poorer countries. There, these jobs offer a chance to build a staircase out of poverty into a middle class. (Or maybe automation will not even offer this opportunity, as this article speculates.) This, of course, creates external costs, like higher energy consumption on both the manufacturing and consumer side, and increased waste through changing consumer behavior: Higher levels of income tend to lead to higher consumption, more travel, etc.

The question is: What does that mean, and how do we want to shape opportunities based on these changes?

Trying to look at the short term effects without any judgement whatsoever, it would seem that in the short term the effects are higher unemployment rates, higher per-capita productivity (as measured per GDP), more free time for the impacted individuals.

Now the question is: What does that mean, and how do we want to shape opportunities based on these changes?

With its Maglev train and book store robots, Shanghai airport offers a nice glimpse into the recent future.

Scenarios

Dystopian scenario A sees high unemployment and societal chaos. (In part, early stages of this are manifest in the global rise of populist movements driven by a rhetoric of individual economic loss as well as loss of control driven by globalization.)

Utopian scenario B sees increased wealth, and wealth redistribution means citizens are increasingly free to play and create, to focus on fulfillment and social development.

Reality is likely to be somewhere in between. The question is where?

We might want to rethink the roles of humans in society and, more concretely, the role of jobs for society.

These scenarios are enough reason to consider how we might want to rethink the roles of humans in society and, more concretely, the role of jobs for society. If jobs aren’t widely available — and we would do good considering this a distinct possibility — income and status cannot be reliably derived from jobs. Hence we need to figure out other sources for both.

Personally I choose to believe that there are opportunities inherent in any transition phase: These are points in time that are defined by renegotiations, and hence offer a leverage point to discuss and implement change.

In the big picture, universal basic income seems like a small step: One module out of many in rejigging society for the 21st century.

Almost a classic proposal by now is the introduction of a universal basic income. There has been an increasing range of research and pilot projects (see this map of universal basic income experiments, in German). Moving away from welfare to universal basic income changes the dynamics, especially around societal status of recipients to the better.

This map shows experiments with basic income. Source: Brand Eins
Universal basic income seems like a small step: One module out of many in rejigging society for the 21st century.

To me it seems like an implementation of a universal basic income wouldn’t be the revolutionary step that many proponents make it sound like. Rather in the big picture, zooming out a bit to take in the full scope of global societal state we’re talking about, universal basic income seems like a small step: One module out of many in rejigging society for the 21st century.

(Note: This isn’t meant as some new take or interpretation of socialism, it seems rather like a logical renewed/rebooted take on 21c capitalism that focuses not on securing basic existence but rather on higher-level needs: Work for extra income that allows for personal luxuries and fulfillment rather than for mere bread and butter.)

It’s heartening to see that even Bill Gates, who tends to have a very solid grasp of big picture concepts, proposes a robot tax to make sure governments have the necessary funds once income tax revenue goes away due to loss of jobs.

One side effect of these rather sweeping changes would almost certainly be that more people could use their newly freed up time on activities and tasks that are more desirable than a repetitive task performed simply for money, like learning, social activities, or elder care: Governments as well as commercial actors could start spending their budgets on turning the non-paid tasks in that huge fields into jobs, and turning low-wage jobs into more desirable jobs.

In societies like Germany or Japan with a strongly growing older segment of society this would lead to much-needed change and significantly improve the situation of many millions of citizens on both the laborer and the patient side of this deal.