Why aren’t our governments talking about the post-work world?

A 19-year-old student creates a robot that successfully appeals against 160,000 parking fines in London and New York, a task normally carried out by lawyers. A startup develops artificial intelligence that automates a company’s accounting, a task normally carried out by, obviously… accountants. A company hires a robot to patrol its carpark, replacing three security guards. A fleet of six-wheeled robots now deliver groceries from supermarkets in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany, a task normally carried out by people. There’s even a robot that makes burgers, and there are even robots being designed to replace humans as sexual partners.

All of these stories are from the last week. We are in the midst of an unprecedented process of replacing workers with machines. Taxi drivers and anybody else who earns their living behind the wheel can start looking for another job. Advertising planners? bye. Teaching assistants? What for? Stock brokers? Not needed. Tractor drivers in agriculture? No longer required. And the list goes on and on.

All of which means we have to change the way we think about work, as well as leaving behind dreams of full employment, at least as we’ve known it until now. In Spain, more than a fifth of the workforce is idle. That’s five million people, many of whom lack the skills needed to do the jobs employers are looking for, and who will have to find those people abroad. There is no going back, and there is no point in seeing mechanization as the enemy: it is an essential part of human progress.

China, the world’s largest manufacturer, has been planning to replace many of its workers with robots since 2012, while looking at ways to train the unemployed. The Bloomberg story from 2012 linked above predicted that by 2014, China would be the biggest market for robots in the world, with more than 60,000, each replacing a handful of workers. And that’s what has happened. Furthermore, the Chinese economy has no intention of committing suicide or generating the world’s largest unemployment rate. It has other plans.

The debate about the future of work, the role of robots and the changes that will need to be made to our education systems and throughout society to meet the challenge of automation cannot be put off any longer. But looking around, both in Spain and the wider world, I don’t see too many governments that really seem prepared to address the issue…

(En español, aquí)

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