AI + ROBOTICS: What happens when robots take away jobs?


James Joseph | August 7, 2018

This article first featured in CYBR Magazine POST_HUMAN_ 01 print issue, click here to buy a copy.
Words by CYBR editor, James Joseph

It’s already happening. As billionaire Mark Cuban said in an interview recently, the question has now become “not who I hire, but what I can hire”. Artificial Intelligence in a crude state is about to redefine the landscape of workforces across the globe, whether we’re talking about physical robots, or software that can act alone, we really have to think about the effect this is about to have.

Most at threat from the progress in AI and robotics are machine operators, food workers, and professional drivers. We’ve even seen it in McDonald’s, with staff being replaced by giant order screens, reducing some individual store staff by more than 50%. Some city McDonald’s outlets have been changed to a collection point basis, with no human interaction until the customer collects their order.

But what happens when we see a large percentage shift in jobs progressing to both robots and AI? What does the world look like and how do governments pay for that colossal societal shift? It’s approaching quicker than many expect too, a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that nearly one Billion jobs are predicted to be replaced by robotic automation and AI by 2030.

One thing to remember is that this isn’t new. While the rise of robotics and AI is a futuristic prospect, history repeats itself time again. A perfect example is the invention and industry of the elevator. In the early 1870s there were zero elevator operators. Otis, the company to popularise the technology had just made the first ‘safety car’, yet 80 years later in 1950 there were 115,000 people employed as elevator operators. Otis elevators, proceeded to invent and improve and by the 1990s there were zero, as all elevators had become self-serving, as you are familiar with today.

However this industrial shift affects many industries globally, and it will have an unprecedented affect on the labour market. I believe that the first thing the shift will allow for, is society to go after more vocational jobs. Those with dreams to follow will be given the chance to. YouTubers, musicians, creative jobs will rise exponentially, and support will be available, but then here comes the downside. The world will become real fair, real fast. With an exponential number of the population joining those vocations, the markets will become saturated and one will have to be the best of the best to succeed.

Let’s take a fictional Uber driver for an example. Steve is an Uber driver, he also works on his podcast in his spare time. Automation replaces Steve’s job, and try as he must, he just can’t get into the top 10% of podcasts, to generate enough revenue. So what happens next? This is why I believe we’re about to enter a world of guaranteed minimum income or even universal basic income.

If you’re not familiar with guaranteed minimum income (or GMI), it’s simply the idea of the Government paying citizens a minimum income so long as they meet certain criteria. This may be as simple as citizenship or age, or more complex with a range of conditions. Universal basic income (UBI) applies when there are no longer certain criteria, for example, simply citizenship.

Paying for this is going to be a colossal challenge for governments. Average models look at the usual model of taxing the most wealthy, but the way I see this working is taxing corporations on the amount of AI and robotics spend, dependant on the size of the company.

For example, if Amazon shifts their workforce to robotic automation up to 50%, they are taxed far more than a startup with less than 10+ employees who use robotic automation of 70%. It has to be relative to the amount of jobs lost and the size of reduction on employee spend.

With the USA projected to find 73 million jobs replaced by robotic automation by 2030, and the UK following the same trend to the tune of 12 million, we need to focus on these economic ideas and start talking about Universal Basic Income as soon as possible.