Should Robotics Companies Help The Workers They Displace?

The Pew Research Internet Project has just published a major survey of tech experts, asking whether they thought robotic devices would displace significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers. Opinions are divided, with 52% saying no, and 48% warning that we could see a new underclass of unemployable people.

What's striking about this study is that so many experts are rejecting the conventional wisdom that, while technology may displace workers in the short-term, it does not reduce employment over the long-term.

As the Harvard Business Review notes:

This encouraging bit of historical consensus was illustrated in a poll of economists taken this February by the University of Chicago. Only 2% of those surveyed believe that automation has reduced employment in the U.S.

Against this backdrop, Pew's 50-50 split is more troubling. Some of the gap may reflect economists' general optimism, but more than that, it signals the recognition that this wave of technological disruption could in fact be different.

In With The New

Should Robotics Companies Help The Workers They Displace?

The Pew study is worth reading in full, but here's a summary of why nearly half of the experts are predicting that AI and robotics will displace more jobs than they create by 2025:

Argument #1: Displacement of workers from automation is already happening—and is about to get much worse.

Mike Roberts, Internet pioneer and Hall of Fame member and longtime leader with ICANN and the Internet Society, shares this view: "Electronic human avatars with substantial work capability are years, not decades away. The situation is exacerbated by total failure of the economics community to address to any serious degree sustainability issues that are destroying the modern 'consumerist' model and undermining the early 20th century notion of 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.' There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon."

Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist, makes the point that the next wave of technology is likely to have a more profound impact than those that came before it: "Previous technological revolutions happened much more slowly, so people had longer to retrain, and [also] moved people from one kind of unskilled work to another. Robots and AI threaten to make even some kinds of skilled work obsolete (e.g., legal clerks). This will displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen. This is a recipe for instability."

Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound.

For those who expect AI and robotics to significantly displace human employment, these displacements seem certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable "underclass."

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, "Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I'm not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom."

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said, "As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S.. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70% of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50% of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the 'application of heuristics' or creativity…An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy?"

Greater Expectations?

On some points, both the optimists and pessimists are in agreement: 1) The educational system is doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of workers. 2) The concept of "work" may change significantly in the coming decade. (For instance, we could see a pushback against expanding automation that will lead to a revolution in small-scale, artisanal, and handmade modes of production.)

One issue that was not explicitly discussed—but is bound to become more relevant if the most pessimistic predictions come true—is whether such rapid changes would lead to new expectations about the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

CSR has been defined in many ways, but the Harvard Kennedy School of Government offers a comprehensive description, as well as some of the pitfalls:

Throughout the industrialized world and in many developing countries there has been a sharp escalation in the social roles corporations are expected to play. Companies are facing new demands to engage in public-private partnerships and are under growing pressure to be accountable not only to shareholders, but also to stakeholders such as employees, consumers, suppliers, local communities, policymakers, and society-at-large.

Laggard firms and governments can sometimes use the existence of corporate social responsibility programs to shirk their roles. Government ultimately bears the responsibility for leveling the playing field and ensuring public welfare. In order for corporate social responsibility programs to work, government and the private sector must construct a new understanding of the balance of public and private responsibility and develop new governance and business models for creating social value.

Currently, CSR expresses itself in a number of ways, whether it's initiatives to strengthen the local economy, improve the environment or create sets of standards, such as ensuring a company's supply chain doesn't include child labor.

But if robotics companies play a direct role in rapidly rendering entire types of professions obsolete, will both government and society expect them to take more responsibility for helping those who have been displaced?

One example of where this is already happening is in San Francisco, where the company Momentum Machines has been working for several years to develop a robotic system that can make the perfect custom hamburger (below)—cooking the burger, slicing and placing the toppings, even, eventually, grinding meat to order—at the rate of 360 burgers an hour.

Should Robotics Companies Help The Workers They Displace?

As IEEE Spectrum reports:

The company's aim is to replace the line cook at fast food restaurants. Initially, it plans to set up its own chain of restaurants; eventually, it expects to sell its burger-robot to competitors.

The company recognizes that when a restaurant brings in its system, jobs will be eliminated; it wants the men and women who lose their jobs to become engineers and work to design more automated systems. On the website, the company states: "We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education. Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device. We will certainly need more engineers to design new devices and technicians to service a growing line of automated restaurant solutions. These are the minds that can do this job."

It also is asking for ideas about other ways it can "help with the transition" as robots replace workers.

Will this initiative work? It's worth watching. If there are meaningful ways to help displaced workers, it's best to begin experimenting with programs now rather than later.