From a technological standpoint, we stand at the dawn of one of the most exciting times in economic history. Or, is it a precipice upon which we are perched? Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation all conspire to transform society at a speed that threatens to outpace our ability to control the socio-economic ramifications of these technologies. It is no longer a question of “if” but “when” with regard to whether jobs will be lost to the aforementioned killer apps.
Those of us who are concerned about an occupational Armageddon due to technological advancement are often charged with being Luddites. However, those hurling the accusation fail to realize that never before in human history has there been such a wholesale shift to new technologies. Tech that requires very little, if any, human intervention. It is true when Ford innovated the assembly line concept, buggy whip salesmen saw their volumes decrease. However, the displaced could easily transition to the sale of items related to the new mode of transportation, the automobile. Those items included tires, leather and wood products, etc. By marketing these things amid the transportation paradigm shift, the former buggy whip salesman was still able to generate income and as a result, support himself and his family and thereby, the broader economy.
In today’s environment, we are facing a situation wherein the technological transition will, in increasing cases, negate the need for human involvement all together. It is analogous to Ford building an army of self-repairing Model T producing robots instead of an assembly line that employed humans. Even the biggest proponents of technology should clearly see the problems. If humans are replaced by automatons, that increasingly replicate and repair themselves, where will human beings work? How will companies grow revenues if faced with decreasing consumer purchasing power? How will governments collect tax revenue?
Experimentation with a Universal Basic Income may, at first blush, address the concerns. That is, until one quickly realizes that this money has to come from somewhere. Be it a taxpayer funded initiative or corporate backed program, or a combination of both, the concept is unsustainable without the consumer who pays taxes and serves as the engine-driving corporate revenues. So, the employee is far from the only potential victim of technology. The very corporations that are leading the charge on automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and the companies that incorporate these advancements, are all also at risk. Local, state and the federal governments also face the fiscal peril of creating yet another unfunded liability that cannibalizes coffers and plunges government into record debt and deficit territory.
As a society, we have yet to define the demarcation between how much advancement we desire and what level of occupational transition we can sustain and still realize an economy that functions. I am loathe to suppose that we have reached an economic impasse with regard to technological advancement. However, I do believe it is time for us as a society to radically shift our way of thinking such that we can continue to realize the forward march of technology, while at the same time benefiting larger swaths of humanity.
To that end maybe we have reached a point where we must realize a shift away from rampant consumerism toward a more, dare I say, collective outlook on the overall advancement of the species. In today’s hyperbolic environment, I am sure to be pilloried as a socialist for the mere suggestion. My retort would be that I am an ardent capitalist that understands the need for capitalism to evolve away from mere consumption to a more holistic ideal that emphasizes experiences and accomplishments over and above mere possession of goods.
In this way we can, over time, economically galvanize traditionally marginalized demographics in both urban and rural regions, as well as the middle class around a substantive brand of attainment typified by how it helps move society forward as a whole. If we track in this direction, then humanity could truly benefit from all of the time saved thanks to robotics, AI and automation. In fact, we could usher in a new golden age of enlightenment. Pie in the sky, you say? 20 years ago, that would have been the same reaction to the notion of a driverless car. That is, until we dared to expand our way of thinking.