When robots steal our jobs

Just as we were putting the final touches on the special report on robotics, Mark Zuckerberg made headlines by addressing a politically controversial topic. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things”, he told an audience of new graduates at Harvard.

Coming from the founder of Facebook, 33 years old and worth $64 billion, that advice should give pause to anyone who still identifies the idea of a universal basic income with utopian leftists. Not only has Zuckerberg’s company connected nearly 2 billion people worldwide; last year it generated a profit of nearly $15 billion with only 17,000 full-time employees. Who could be better placed to appreciate the spectacular productivity of automated tasks?

The speed at which machines can now learn is mind-boggling. By processing databases that expand on a daily basis, they refine their skills inexorably, making it possible to compete with, for example, the world’s best radiologists. Unlike humans, these smart machines work 24/7 and react in a millisecond. In a move so rich in irony that it borders on the comical, some American traders have initiated legal proceedings against financial algorithms, accusing them of, yes, unfair competition.

It’s not just the white-collar jobs that are threatened by innovation. Lorry drivers are up against the first autonomous trucks, while factory workers stand by as their tools are progressively robotised. According to experts, not millions but tens of millions of jobs are threatened worldwide by robots and artificial intelligence.

Everywhere, governments seem overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. In Europe, the focus is on keeping economies competitive, clinging to the naïve hope that new jobs will be sufficient to compensate for the loss of old ones. The problem is especially urgent in Asia, where entire populations depend on the incomes of low-skilled workforces that can easily be replaced by ever-cheaper robots.

So what can be done to help the future unemployed? One answer is to create many new jobs in personal services: the needs seem infinite when it comes to children’s education, healthcare and assistance to the elderly – and the benefits of such jobs are hard to dispute. It will, of course, also be important to support entrepreneurship and professional mobility to make labour markets more fluid. But that will not be enough.

To cushion the effects of mass unemployment, the most convincing concept is still Zuckerberg’s: a basic sum paid to all adults, whether they have jobs or not.

The idea is making headway in progressive circles – it was on the ballot in Switzerland recently, and Finland has embarked on a pilot project – but it may be difficult to sell unless it’s linked to something that looks like work. Public opinion remains too attached to the traditional values of labour to accept the idea of a payment to everyone that, in addition to enriching the rich, would give the impression of rewarding idleness.

On the contrary, a basic income linked to job training could convince both the left and the right. The idea would be to provide every citizen with a subsistence income, provided that they follow an apprenticeship: some sort of technical or intellectual training, accessible at different levels, from a simple language course to a scientific diploma. Such training, completed by testing, would have the double advantage of encouraging the social integration of the unemployed and of creating new jobs for teachers and trainers.

If machines are going to devour tens of millions of jobs, and if it’s a matter of giving everyone “a cushion to try new things”, as Zuckerberg says, better to pair universal income with effective training. Money alone will not be enough.



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