Automation Will Also Disrupt The Social Contract
The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution signals a much larger role for automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) in tasks previously performed primarily by humans.
Accordingly, dramatic concerns regarding the future of work have become commonplace in the media and international policy circles. There is no shortage of alarmists envisioning a world where machines take over any job that we can conceive of, resulting in mass unemployment and existential dismay, particularly in a world where work has become an entrenched part of our identity.
But the problem with such dystopian predictions is the application of present economic and cultural assumptions to future phenomena. Never-ending automation would be truly unfeasible if human incomes were reduced to the point of being unable to sustain an overabundance of machine-produced goods and services.
That said, even when a more optimistic view is considered, the transformation of managerial strategy and resource allocation will surely accompany the displacement of thousands of human-led tasks. Providing workers with a stake or equity in machines could become an increasingly common strategy, enabling a transition toward jobs that require working alongside machines and re-skilling appropriately.
As Germany has proved through the application of social partnerships between workers and managers, the aim would be to develop well-paying, flexible jobs that enable lifelong learning or “upskilling” as part of their long-term evolution.
However, one of the real challenges of such a transition is making inequality—an already worrying byproduct of globalized automation—even worse. For this reason, an overhauled safety net in both industrialized and developing countries is slated to become a pressing policy necessity in coming decades.
If automation does result in higher productivity and earnings for firms that implement it, can this newly generated wealth be a source of funding for job training, technical education, or work positions in non-robotic areas?
If novel redistributive programs such as a basic income or negative income tax begin to take hold, can these measures replace obsolete forms of welfare and outdated labor regulations to compensate for their cost?
While such predictions are never without blind spots, it is highly apparent that robotics and AI will be tools that displace labor in tasks and practices, without necessarily eliminating jobs.
One of the most promising aspects of automation is being able to better direct and define our human efforts towards the tasks that inspire and enrich us, especially those that are urgent for our environment and well-being. Human capital will remain valuable in areas that are vital to our quality of life, ranging from child and elderly care to creativity in arts and culture.
And in many developing countries, anticipating the impacts of these changes will be a significant factor in employing new technologies to reform their education systems and integrating millions of individuals to the formal economy.
The coming wave of automation could enhance our ingenuity instead of supplanting it entirely. We are already facing an inflection point that is forcing us to reconsider our present views on work and educational formation.
As such, timely changes that facilitate the adaptability of public policy to these trends should not be ignored by governments, firms, and societies at large. Our best possible use of human capital depends on it.