While there’s no immediate threat of a ‘Terminator’ like uprising from our robotic creations, there are legitimate reasons to be wary – in particular your job security. Skeptics might disregard it as nonsense, but it has been reported that as much as 47% of job types are susceptible to automation and robots. For those who believe this is an issue for future generations to worry about – the time-frame? 20 years.

  • Wages depressed by 0.5% between 1990 and 2007 as a result of automation.
  • But does automation simply provide jobs in other sectors?
  • Universal Basic Income – a potential solution to automation related unemployment.

The aforementioned statistic comes from a 2013 Oxford Martin School report that provoked a notable increase in debate regarding automation and its effects. However, a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has shed even more light on an issue that governments, employers and employees would do well to be concerned about.

It poses that the process of automation has already begun to displace human workers, and that these jobs will not return. According to the report, each robot added to manufacturing processes during the period 1990 to 2007 displaced around 6.2 humans. Furthermore wages were depressed by up to 0.5% by automation during the same period.

“Using this approach,” the report says, “we estimate large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages across commuting zones.”

Do robots provide jobs elsewhere?

There are those, however, that doubt whether the prospect of being rendered redundant by technology is realistic. Many observers claim that as it has not happened in the past there is no reason to expect it to happen in the future.

Ross Gittins, an Australian economist agrees. “Improving the productivity of a nation’s labour increases its real income. When that income is spent, jobs are created somewhere in the economy. Technological advance doesn’t destroy jobs, it ‘displaces’ them from one part of the economy to another.”

MIT economist David Autor, believes those who worry about the potential for automation to leave swathes of the population unemployed “ignore the strong complementarities between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor”.

The problem with these arguments is that they fail to take into account the exponentially increasing capability of the machines that we create. As Callum Chase eloquently explains – “They are already better than us at image recognition; they are overtaking us in speech recognition, and they are catching up in natural language processing. Unlike us, they are improving fast: thanks to Moore’s Law (which is morphing, not dying) they get twice as good every eighteen months or so.”

A potential recourse: Universal basic income

Given the likelihood of continuing and increasing automation of jobs, as well as the complex issues associated with a ballooning global population, it is pertinent to ask the question: what measures can we take?

One option has been debated for centuries – Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a form of social security involving the state paying its citizens a regular and unconditional lump sum regardless of whether they work. It was proposed by Thomas More in 1516 as a solution to widely prevalent crime, and has high profile backers today such as Elon Musk.

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” he said. “I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen.” The solution? “ I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income,” Musk said, at the World Government Summit in Dubai. “It’s going to be necessary.”

The complexity of employment in the future cannot be understated, with technological as well as social and political aspects requiring great consideration. Whether UBI is the magic bullet to the issue of automation remains to be seen.
However, the NBER report should at minimum ensure that those in power accept that this is an issue that needs to enter the popular discourse. Given the warning the study is providing, it’s safe to say the earlier the better.