A major part of President Elect Donald Trump’s election platform was the promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, jobs that manufacturing companies had moved to other countries where labor was cheaper. Trump recently warned automotive company BMW that they could be hit with an import tariff of up to 35 percent on cars made in Mexico, in an attempt to prompt the company to build in the U.S. instead. But what Trump doesn’t realize is that even if those manufacturing plants do return, the jobs associated with them might not, as robots have been steadily replacing the humans that have been performing them in the interim.
Interestingly, the effects of increased automation in the workforce can already be seen in the U.S.: according to the Federal Reserve’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing output in the U.S. has risen by 21 percent since 2009, but jobs in that sector rose only by 6 percent over the same time period — hardly a resounding rebound from the great recession. The culprit for this disparity, as one would expect, came from the continued automation of the manufacturing process.
And as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, more intellectual and creative livelihoods are being replaced: a Japanese insurance firm, Fukoku Mutual Life, has dismissed 34 employees, replacing them with IBM’s Watson AI, with IBM claiming that the program can "analyze and interpret all of your data, including unstructured text, images, audio and video".
Fukoku Mutual expects to see a productivity increase of 30 percent following the installation of the new service. And analyzing insurance claims is probably the tip of the iceberg: AI software that can perform mathematical functions, like accounting, and even more creative tasks, such as teaching students and generating news articles, is already available, and grows more sophisticated every day.
So as humans become obsolete in the workforce, how will we, as a species, face the predicted tsunami of unemployment, and the subsequent economic catastrophe that would result from that? Many experts are looking at a possible solution that many cultures had previously considered downright distasteful: providing a basic universal income to allow people to meet their basic needs.
A draft report tabled by Member of European Parliament (MEP) Mady Delvaux-Stehres warns that such measures must be seriously considered in light of what it describes as a "technological revolution" that will impact humanity in the coming decades. The report recommends that “In the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so.” The report was accepted in a 17-2 vote, and will be presented to European Parliament in February.
Projects based on this concept are already in the works, with Finland currently providing a monthly allowance of €560 ($593 USD) to unemployed citizens, in a 2-year pilot project. Closer to home, Canada’s province of Ontario will setting up a three-year pilot program in three test communities this year, to provide $1,320 CAD ($1,000 USD) to all citizens between 18 to 64 years of age. The payments will remove previous income limits that were attached to unemployment and disability payments, allowing individuals to work more hours than the previous programs would allow them to.
A previous attempt at a program like this was conducted in Dauphin and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, between 1975 and 1978. The program was considered a success, with a reduction in heath care costs, and the continued enrollment of high school students, many of whom would have had to leave school early to look for work to support their families.
Needless to say, there will be a massive amount of cultural and corporate resistance to such programs, although the wealth held by the affluent 1 percent could certainly stand to see some rebalancing. And we will be required to perform a major cultural shift to remain viable as a species, such as shifting our personal identities from what our jobs are, moreover to what we, as individuals, actually do with our lives. In the end, the only thing holding us back are outmoded concept of the link between our jobs and self-worth.
A step beyond that would be to eliminate money altogether, and just let the machines do the hard work for us, although that’s a leap that our culture would be unable to contemplate quite yet. Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard explained the economy of the future quite succinctly: "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."