This scenario highlights the implications of profound societal shifts due to further automation of work with the help of machine intelligence. A deep social crisis erupts from massive job displacement due to artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning and predictive analytics. This technological disruption leads to a societal compromise aimed at maintaining an implicit social contract: Business and policy elites come together over a significant wage insurance, which acts as a sort of guaranteed minimum income. The worst economic deprivation and its deleterious social effects are overcome due to a safety net emerging for many in society. But significant new questions emerge as the role of work loses its centrality in many people’s lives.
How We Got There — Key Drivers
Domestic and Global Economy
Between 2016 and 2026, automation exceeds even very optimistic projections about its transformative impact on the U.S. economy. Changes occurs in two successive waves: The first displaces middle- and even high-skill jobs in myriad sectors, from service, to shipping, to heavy manufacturing. Some surgeons are replaced by robots, pilots do less and less in airplanes, administrative work is outsourced and automated, autonomous transport trucks are common, all kinds of bots populate homes and offices, and many important decisions in business are relegated to machines that can outthink and outlast most humans most of the time.
By 2026, a second wave of automation arrives, this time with ramifications for a range of high-skill knowledge jobs. Surprisingly strong improvements in machine learning displace Silicon Valley engineers and Wall Street financial traders alike. In many instances, machines begin learning faster than humans, especially in new complex domains, from interpreting medical images to flying airplanes, thus enlarging the gap between humans and machines. In terms of social impact, this transition is akin to the precipitous decline in agricultural jobs , from 41 percent of the workforce in 1900 to 4 percent in 1970, due to mechanization.
Although surging productivity contributes to strong corporate profits and significant GDP growth, a social crisis precipitates when a quarter of all American jobs — 30 million — are eliminated. Unemployment soars as machines replace much human labor. Fears of social unrest among those left behind — as well as the eventually corrosive effects of lower consumer spending due to diminished incomes — result in a stunning political consensus that was unimaginable even a decade earlier. Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington’s political leadership come together in the early 2020s to undertake a significant tax code overhaul for both individuals and businesses, led by a Democratic administration but embraced by Congress. The solution is a substantial wage insurance scheme financed by corporate profits — effectively a guaranteed income. The insurance program requires very few hours of work to maintain a basic standard of living. While radical, the proposal is essentially a highly enhanced version of the Trade Adjustment Assistance expansions of the early 2000s in response to globalization.
Incomes thus immediately increase for earners at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, and economic security is afforded to those in the middle who are rapidly being shut out of the new high-tech economy. This, combined with tax code changes, limits concentration of wealth at the top and produces a new middle stratum in society. This new middle class is not defined by asset acquisition and economic mobility. It is instead marked, as in Europe’s social democracies, by freedom from deprivation or the same necessity to work to maintain a decent standard of living.
Globally, the race for supremacy in automation and machine learning expands well beyond the realm of economics. It also spawns a new political and military competition among nations on Earth and in space.Major conflicts escalate between the United States and China, in economic, political, technological and military domains, each aided by espionage and cyberattacks. But, as China falls further behind, the two nations settle into a new kind of Cold War. Even though each probes the other’s defenses, resilience and cyber capabilities, in the interest of security and global economic stability, both sides agree implicitly not to launch major attacks on defense, infrastructure, or economic systems.
For above figure see, for instance:
Andy Stern, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream, PublicAffairs, (2016).
Maia Unkuri, “Finland Considers Basic Income to Reform Welfare System,” BBC News (August 20, 2015). Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33977636
Christine Emba, “Universal Basic Income,” The Washington Post (September 28, 2015). Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/28/universal-basic-income-a-primer/
Kia Kokalitcheva, “Y Combinator Wants to Test a Revolutionary Economic Idea,” Fortune (May 21, 2016). Available at: http://fortune.com/2016/05/31/y-combinator-basic-income-oakland/
The global economy enters a period of high volatility as other developed and developing nations fall further behind in the transition to this new machine age. This turmoil particularly exacerbates instability in countries already plagued by endemic political and social inequities, as well as countries that depend heavily on natural resources, such as oil. Continued climate instabilities create further tensions between developed and emerging nations, with particularly harsh impacts on poorer nations, whose famines, floods and political unrests creates downward spirals, hopelessness, terrorism and demands for restitution from their wealthier, polluting nations.
Initially, the global information and machine intelligence revolution is relatively unimpeded as strong U.S. technology companies use their economic leverage to impose open data standards on the world. But, eventually, the world divides into blocs of digital “haves,” which are more open, and “have-nots,” who are closed. This largely restricts the movement of data and world commerce to the “haves.”
Explosive technological innovation and wage insurance work in tandem to drive down costs to consumers while increasing purchasing power for many. This engenders an environment in which many technology-enabled services are accessible and affordable — in some form — for most: high-speed broadband, driverless cars within expansive car-share networks, and advanced mass transit funded by government investment. The trend extends to health breakthroughs as well, as improved diagnostics and tech-driven therapeutics begin to extend life spans for all, even for those already in old age.
Mobile and smart technology plays a role in automating and personalizing everything from buying groceries, to transportation, to health care, to personal finance. Smart devices anticipate and meet key needs, fundamentally transforming economic relationships as brick-and-mortar transactions vanish. Everywhere, the “smart” environment is wired to learn, remember, and interact.
To be able to provide these services, ubiquitous data is the norm. Because major technology firms have become the ultimate economic power brokers, they enforce this norm deliberately and persistently. Consumer protections are effectively off the table as technology and data collection grow too pervasive and omnipresent to regulate.
Other data uses proliferate, from predictive law enforcement to dynamic health insurance rates, but the culture shifts away from underlying anxiety over such practices to basic acquiescence. Government gets into the act as well; cities are blanketed with video cameras, sensors and other devices designed both to make cities safer and more convenient, but also to pacify the population and keep crime and unrest in check.
The only checks on massive corporate and government surveillance are the economic and reputational risks that emerge from major abuses or data breaches. These periodic outbreaks produce just enough controversy to keep companies and government agencies minimally compliant through voluntary standards and self-policing. But the social contract around consumer privacy permanently shifts away from any notion that individuals own their personal data as property.
Impacts on Core Areas of Concern
With freedom from extreme economic deprivation and a broad economic leveling, many traditional socio-economic distinctions are evaporating. Communities are essentially dividing into three classes: those who accept the wage insurance with minimal work; those who find ways to supplement the insurance through roles and jobs that remain immune from automation (for the time being); and those who play necessary roles within major corporations. As American society grows more diverse, residential segregation becomes more sharply defined by these income divides than by race. Despite some gradual effacing of racial distinction in the middle, the elite who manage the economy continue to disproportionately leave out women and people of color, although gains are being made.
Large numbers of displaced populations from overseas, drawn by the relatively high universal standard of living, seek entry to the United States. The native population is still divided over the desirability of significant immigration rates, but the worst resentments are blunted by the minimum income, as fewer people feel as though they are “losing” in the new economy.
The shift away from work as the center of life and identity for many has begun to have significant effects on social and cultural patterns. Time — the mere fact of more of it — is now a significant driver of social and community habits. Some communities grow closer and tighter — virtually and in person. People have the time to connect, and they look more and more to others to add meaning and fulfillment to their lives. Community and volunteer organizations are thriving, and while online communities of interest proliferate, there is a movement to spend more time together in public. Gathering in the public commons is the new “vinyl record” for a digitally native population. Many cities have begun to model themselves after the Copenhagen of today, actively prioritizing the cultivation of public life and communal interaction.
The shifting locus of meaning is also spurring a drive to take the entrepreneurial spirit once valorized in work and apply it to other things. Many Americans — particularly those who are part of the growing cohort that is not religiously affiliated — now seek to create new institutions. Creative startups flourish, and new civic ventures pop up across the country, as many individuals pursue fulfillment without the burden of making ends meet. Government also establishes new service tracks to facilitate this energy, and new ranks join municipal leagues and movements dedicated to civic causes, such as education, maintenance of public space and culture.
Much of the newfound time and energy is directed toward the places where people live, and is enabled by technology and smart devices that allow people to seamlessly weigh in on a range of local issues. The promise of truly direct democracy is closer to reality, but not without new challenges.
Because local politics has become seamless, these opportunities for direct, real-time input obviate the need to get motivated about major elections. Economic frustration is now a less significant catalyst for political engagement, and as elites largely coalesce around the wage insurance, a key area of ideological clash falls away. Middle-class voters who used to drive electoral politics are largely absent in this levelled society, and they opt out of the political system. Nationally, voting rates have plateaued at about one-third of the population.
The arts economy is at the beginning of a dramatic reformation. With more disposable income, new audiences are emerging, composed of many who historically faced barriers to America’s cultural life and the institutions that safeguard it. The arts are now assuming a more important role for broader swaths of the population, driving demand for cultural experiences that educate and inform audiences. A new cultural literacy thrives, and audiences now expect new art and new means of engaging with it.
This is also a period of explosive growth in individual creativity. As demand for cultural experiences increases, the expansion and diversification of audiences are also driving rapid growth among the ranks of artists. With sustainability and subsistence no longer key drivers of their output, artists have ample time and resources to explore new forms of expression and means of connecting with audiences unmediated by galleries and large institutions. But the number of would-be artists is soaring, as those who would have been hobbyists in the old economy have begun to dedicate more of their energies to creative pursuits. As a result, it is growing more difficult to distinguish between arts as a hobby and community activity and true artistic excellence.
Public funding is focused on initiatives that instrumentalize the arts as hubs of community activity. This is ushering in a new era of artistic populism. As new artists skirt traditional institutions and forge more direct links with their audience, many legacy institutions are tapping into new opportunities that have extensive ramifications for their programming. In the spirit of the new age, they are embracing technology, moving beyond the traditional confines of four walls, and seeking to provide content and relevance to diverse audiences interested in a range of experiences, from the educational, to the creative, to the entertaining. Art museums that do not make this shift risk becoming subsidized warehouses, storing vast collections of art that command little to no audience.
The trend toward economic growth spared a handful of legacy media outlets, but the need to adapt — particularly as complex tasks become automated — is no less acute today. Cushioned by a resurgence in community interest, successful local and regional news organizations have slashed operating costs by automating most of the business functions, and even many reporting functions. “Reporters” in this environment are those who can simply use machines to manage multiple data streams flowing from public and private sources, and who can curate articles written largely by bots.
A new kind of citizen journalism is also emerging, populated by those who plug into complex networks of sensors and big data streams to uncover and verify information in the public interest. Because everyone is online, more and more people now seek to contribute to community and common knowledge about issues.
This aggregated community input is aided by significant technological breakthroughs in sorting through unstructured data to better determine truth and credibility. Rather than encouraging a vast mixing of accurate information with unsubstantiated opinion (and even misinformation), technology platforms employ vastly enhanced search and analytical tools that curate and serve content based on its veracity. Algorithms manage, sort and then fast-track content that reflects the “truth.”