The Fear of Increasing Automation

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Computers and technology are becoming smarter and are able to do many things that we once thought impossible for them. Some of these are: driving cars and trucks, interpreting x-rays, combing through legal documents intelligently, and even writing news reports and briefs.

Many people are fearful that with the advancing of these technologies, many human jobs will be obsolete resulting in increased poverty and wealth disparity. However, those same fears existed with inventions such as the printing press and telephone. Instead, there can be an opportunity to change the world as we know it for the better and herein are some solutions to make this a reality.

Goodbye Jobs

The ability to make our lives easier often comes at a price to others. Since the dawn of human civilization there has been a tension between technology and manual labor. The difference this time is that technology is now striking at human cognition. Some computers can write operatic pieces, while others such as Watson can play games that are hard to master even for humans. In fact, the all-time Jeopardy champ, Ken Jennings after a drubbing from Watson proclaimed, “I for one welcome our computer overlords”. In some industries such as financial and legal services, some tasks that previously relied on the expertise of human employees are already being automated.

The fear of jobs being made obsolete by technology is always real in the short-term and especially acute after an economic meltdown or recession. More people become job-seekers, allowing employers to have more bargaining power and keep wages stagnant or even decline. This is already becoming a reality for the newest generation of college graduates who join the workforce only to find out their degree isn’t valued as much as it once was a generation ago.

As people become disgruntled, tensions rise between the class of “Owners” and “Employees”. While businesses and consumers feel the benefits of automation with cheaper, more abundant goods and services, compromised purchasing power can tend to diminish them. Owners see some of their employees as expensive and lay them off in order to keep costs low. Also, Owners, if they are able – especially in protectionist environments, sometimes react by propping up prices in order to control their supply. Owner’s justify their actions by saying they are the only ones taking risk – they have a stake in the game and believe they suffer disproportionately should the company go under.

Wealth Disparity Grows

Driven by the first fear, Owners try to ensure that excess gains transfer back to them and not to Employees. These gains exhibit a compounding effect; owners either reinvest in the company or in their personal portfolios. Wealth for non-Owners typically remains stagnant and linear, while that of owners grows exponentially enlarging the wealth gap which also grows exponentially.

History has shown time and again that this is how a revolution starts – the disenfranchised with less to lose seek to take power back from those that control the wealth.

The New Economy Mindset

If we are to avoid the next revolution, our mindset needs to shift from an “Us vs. Them”, to a collective “We”. This doesn’t mean overhauling the economy to communist or socialist policies. Instead we need to transform our current capitalist system into ‘Conscious Capitalism’, one in which those who seek more wealth can do so but don’t have to do that at the expense of others.

How can this become reality?

As noted before, Owners believe they have all the risk, so they believe they deserve the reward. This is the key to unlocking the potential of a more advanced society. What if everyone thought and behaved as an owner?

To be sure, when we ask this question, we are also changing the paradigm of what it means to be an Owner. In our view of the world, ownership doesn’t just mean a claim on assets; instead it is a responsibility to nurture those assets for the greater good. And we should be quick to add that ownership is a mindset. Many people who identify as employees today do not feel like Owners and that’s understandable.

We need to invest in education and awareness to change that mindset and it might take a generation or two. If we start changing how people view ownership at an early age, maybe there would be a time where there are no employees in a company, everyone would be a working Owner. In case you think this is a pie-in-the-sky idea, not so fast! There are many examples of this in the real-world, such as the John Lewis Partnership. In his book, Maverick, Ricardo Semler describes the transformation of a traditional family business into a similar company.

Of course, this will not happen overnight and we might need some changes in laws to support changes in mindset. But who knows, future generations could very well look radically different from ours and in the words of Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, poverty might indeed be seen only in a museum.

With that encouraging thought let’s visit the original topic of this article. If everyone was an Owner, then we would all be aligning our interests in making our companies as prosperous as possible. And what we lose as demand for our time (jobs), we could get back in increased profits (dividends). When that happens, we no longer need to fear automation.

In fact, we now have the opportunity for robots and humans to begin working more closely. Collaboration in our minds is the key to accelerating prosperity. Instead of fearing automation, we can use our brains for higher level thinking, increasing our potential to solving the world’s greatest mysteries while our robot partners do the mundane, dangerous, and mind-numbing tasks.

Understanding Needs

The other big opportunity we have reveals itself when we look at the needs of humans and robots. Robots just need energy. When we get up in the morning, we’re reminded that we have all the energy we need from the sun. The more sustainable energy we harvest, the easier it is for robots to become self-sufficient. We can build robots that build robots that make solar panels! As technology advances, energy from higher density areas can be transferred to less sunny areas. That energy can be used to fill one of our other needs: food. Also, cheaper energy means cheaper shelter, and more advanced sustainable methods of sourcing water becomes economically viable.

Humans on the other hand need food, water and shelter to survive. But we are also social, thoughtful, and curious creatures that crave knowledge. The psychologist Abraham Maslow artfully described this in his seminal work, The Hierarchy of Human Needs. With our robot friends helping, maybe we can all elevate ourselves up this hierarchy, and education and learning doesn’t become the means, but the end of fruitful and joyous journey.

We are hardwired to be fearful of unknown; but it is this fear that drives us to create previously unimaginable solutions. If we can recognize the potential instead of the despair of what automation can bring to us as a whole, then there is a possibility for a brighter tomorrow. There will be bumps along the road, but if we can tackle these problems now, there’s no telling what the future may hold.