The future is always up for grabs, but judging by the way things are headed it'll be a future built on the labor of robots. Automated cashiers and waiters, assembly lines, stock markets, and even journalism; companies are looking for ways to streamline procedures, increase productivity, and make more money, and the answer seems to be robotic.
What does that mean for the human labor force though? It is estimated that 45% of the tasks humans perform can be automated to some degree. The World Economic Forum predicts a jaw-dropping five million jobs will be taken by robots by 2020.
While proponents of technology boast that its advancement actually creates jobs (and there are studies that show this), it would be foolish to deny that there will be many people faced with unemployment as our reliance on machines increases. At the very least, we can expect a difficult transition where many people will be left jobless as their skills become swiftly obsolete. It takes time and money to retrain a workforce.
Ideas of how the government can avoid a nation of chronic joblessness and aid its citizens in adjusting and adapting to working with machines are already circulating. Many are generating controversy, but also sparking debate as to how best we can all prepare for the age of machines. Here are a few policies proposed as possible solutions:
Universal Basic Income
Ontario, Canada and Finland are in the beta stages of a form of social security called universal basic income. The idea behind universal basic income is that every citizen, regardless of employment status or income, is ensured enough money to survive on by the government. It's thought to be a way to save money by removing the need for expensive welfare programs while also incentivizing people to pursue their own business ventures and career goals.
"Poverty is not a lack of character. Poverty is a lack of cash. People in poverty tend to eat less healthfully, save less money and do drugs more often because they don't have their basic needs met," said Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in his highly popular TED Talk on the benefits of universal basic income. It's an option that could level the playing field and make the transition easier on government-funded social programs as well as those struggling to find work amidst a newly automated world.
Negative Income Tax
Similar to universal basic income, negative income tax is also about creating a social safety net that maintains economic mobility for all citizens. The concept was developed by Milton Friedman, a conservative economist and Nobel laureate.
"The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need, rather than as now, by requiring them to go before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may spend X dollars on rent, Y dollars on food and then be given a handout," he said in a 1968 interview.
While negative income tax would only apply to people who actually need money, it was designed to equalize the rich and poor by guaranteeing opportunity for all.
Guaranteed Government Jobs
To combat the sudden laying off of employees due to robots, one progressive solution is job creation in areas that generally fall within the public sector. Ensuring that there are sufficiently paying jobs in childcare, education, health, and the arts would help alleviate unemployment by tackling the issue head on.
Billionaire and technological tycoon Bill Gates first suggested the idea of a robot tax. It's exactly what it sounds like: Companies using robotic tools would be required to pay a certain tax. The concept has faced scorn from some economists and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers called the idea a "poor strategy for helping less fortunate workers." He points out that taxing technology would actually drive more jobs offshore and ultimately increase unemployment back at home.
Expansive Social Safety Net
The United States has one of the weakest social safety nets in comparison to the world's other wealthy countries. Universal healthcare, affordable or free education, and government-funded childcare options simply do not exist in the U.S. and we saw what that did to American citizens during the recession years ago.
These programs helped Germany weather its own recession, in which it's rate of unemployment stopped at 6.6% in comparison to 10% in the U.S. Another component of a viable expanded social safety net would be vocational trainings built on an apprenticeship model, a program that has served Germany very well while it continues to advance technologically.
Whether it be a base universal income provided by the government, beefing up welfare programs, expanding jobs in the public sphere, or something else entirely, we must start considering how best to usher humans into a future of machines. That's something only a human brain can do.