What happens when the work runs out?

Automation’s impact on society is generating much interest, with prognostications all the way up to impending robot Armageddon.

Even more measured assessments warn of a double squeeze on resources as the population ages and a significant proportion of human jobs are automated.

I’ve written about this in two previous posts on this blog, about the social impact of Industry 4.0 and the rise of the robot CEO.

I believe it’s important enough to merit a third visit, so in this post I give another personal perspective on why I think we may still be underestimating the size and speed of the change, and some thoughts on how we should look to manage our post-automation society.

A quick Internet search throws up studies from respected sources which estimate between 20% and 38% of the global jobs marked being lost to automation in the next thirty years.

Another search reveals there is a global shortage of tech workers. So, that’s fine, why don’t we just retrain our displaced shop and factory workers as web designers and programmers and sail peacefully on?

But this assumes that technology itself will develop at a reasonable rate, something it has always consistently failed to do.

When I started as a computer programmer in 1983, my initial training took around three months. At the end of that time, it would take me about thirty hours to code, test and integrate a simple data entry program.

That excluded the time spent waiting for a slot on the shared green screen terminal to key in the code from my pencil-written coding sheets, and for the compiled code to make it back from the data centre via a printout, which usually told me I had missed out a critical semi-colon.

Fast forward to 2017, when I decided to dust off the coding skills and teach myself how to build a website. After half a day with one book and a few online sources I was able to create a basic website with video, forms, links and RSS feeds.

The only thing that prevented me going into total culture shock at my rate of learning was the comforting discovery that I can still miss out a crucial semi-colon.

I then found that I could have plugged my raw content into WordPress or a similar service and got a decent website in minutes, with no direct human programming involvement at all.

Assuming we maintain this rate of progress, I wonder what the millions of web developers will be doing in ten years, let alone thirty.

How much code can there still be left to write, and how far are we from the technology being able to maintain, protect, upgrade and enhance itself without any human intervention at all?

And it’s not just in IT. When we consider automation and its effect on employment we tend to think of more obviously transactional, repetitive jobs; yet we have already seen how Artificial Intelligence can help hugely in areas such as medical diagnosis and treatment, by being able to assimilate, process and synthesise treatment regimes from vastly more case information than the most talented doctor could ever hold in their mind.

And, as I’ve written about elsewhere, I see no reason why automation can’t do a better job of actually running businesses, using technology that already exists.

Now that the automation dominos have started to topple, I believe we may be surprised by how far and how quickly technology replaces human labour.

Does this spell catastrophe for mankind, and can you expect to see a naked time-travelling android in your neighbourhood soon?

I believe that the answers to these questions are, in order, ‘No, not if we are prepared to rethink the fundamentals of society.’ and ‘No, really, you need to understand that “The Terminator” was only pretend.’

When it comes to averting robot catastrophe, I’ve written about the need to avoid automation creating deeper divisions in society and leading to the kind of revolution which no-one enjoys, the kind with barricades and burning palaces.

I’d like to focus here on the society we might want in a world where most people no longer need to work, and how we need to prepare for this.

I recognise that this world is probably still a long way off, even if the forecasts about the speed and scope of automation do fall short.

For a start, around half the world’s working population still work in agriculture, many at subsistence level. Automation has a long way to go before all of them can be freed from their drudgery.

However, in largely industrial and commercial countries it could come sooner than we’re expecting. Add the effects of the ageing demographic in these societies, and employment as we understand it now could soon become a scarce commodity.

That sounds scary, yet it is surely something that we have been working towards throughout our time on Earth. We have always striven to make our lives easier and longer, to produce more with less effort and to give ourselves more leisure time.

This raises a paradox. The inevitable conclusion of all this striving is that people no longer need to work, yet work is one of the fundamental drivers for what we do.

How do we tackle this?

To my mind, we need to build a society offering new opportunities and challenges to replace those of the traditional workplace.

Because the drudgery is all automated, it should be a society where we can all do what we want with their life without worrying about how to pay for their next meal, and where personal reward is directly linked to the amount of value we put back.

So far, so obvious, but what does this society look like in practical terms?

As a starting point, I believe it needs to have

A ‘robot tax’ to fund a basic universal income for all. This has been widely suggested and also attacked as reactionary, but I believe it is essential. If human jobs largely disappear, we clearly can’t sustain a society where the robot owners keep all the profits while displaced workers share a rapidly shrinking social security pot.

A new social contract supporting everyone in their choice of what to do with their lives, whether that is to live purely off their universal income, to build and market their own skills for personal gain, or to advance society through learning, research and teaching.

New social structures focused on individual and small scale collaborative enterprise rather than traditional corporate hierarchies. This new society will be one of entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, artisans, teachers and volunteers rather than workers, sales people, managers and executives.

A tax system geared to individual rather than corporate enterprise, reflecting the multi-tasking, gig-based economy.

Laws and tax structures which prevent exploitation of individuals without constraining an individual’s ability to work as they please.

Some of the building blocks for this society are already in place, and many have been delivered through the digital revolution itself.

Web channels make it much easier for me to create, share, collaborate on, market and sell what I do now than it was twenty years ago, whether I am a writer, an artisan, a website developer, an actor or a philosopher.

The explosion of entertainment content drives demand for creative talent, and digital tools facilitate the creative process.

As digital financial transactions replace the use of hard cash, we have a growing capability to manage the complexities of taxation in the gig economy based on real data, rather than through the annual agony of the tax return.

I believe that the automation revolution will have a far-reaching impact on the fundamentals of our society, and that it will happen more quickly than we think.  It offers the opportunity for us finally to break free from the drudgery of work, as long as we create and encourage those models and mechanisms which promote and support individual and collaborative enterprise.

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