The Future of Work|| Robots, AI, and Automation
Author Darrell M. West
A Review by Scott Dennis
If you have never considered the impact of automation on the workplace, this quote from a top technology CEO provides an opening salvo from Darrell West’s “The future of work” and should get your attention. “We will soon launch a robot that can perform tasks currently done by people with a high school education or less. The robot will only cost $20,000.00”. Throughout the reading of this important book I refer back to this quote and meditate on my trepidation for friends and fellow citizens that fall into this category.
The future of work is an insightful analysis of the precarious state that our society finds itself in. West describes industries’ heedless adoption of automation technology balanced by everyday workers that find themselves with little or no voice about change impacting their livelihoods. At the fulcrum are policy makers that are under informed about the impact of technology on their constituents. Politicians are also faced with the conundrum of accepting corporate funding from companies that will eventually pressure social programs by putting their citizens out of work.
The chapters of the book are intuitively ordered into the categories of “accelerating innovation”, “economic and social impact” and “an action plan” so that a logical and nuanced understanding of the technological challenge to society can be understood by any reader. Importantly possible strategies to avoid social catastrophe are offered for policy makers and activists alike to consider. In “accelerating innovation” West takes the reader on a tour of the technological advances that have infiltrated our daily lives. These advances have made our lives easier in many ways, robots that can perform dangerous or monotonous tasks, machine learning breakthroughs that have evolved into our faithful personal assistants or even something more intimate. Imagine an autonomous vehicle that could safely drive you and your children to appointed destinations in the morning and perhaps make some money for you as a driverless taxi when you are not using it. Autonomous driving and many other innovations discussed in the book are only possible through a chain of technologies being controlled by artificial technology or “AI”. Advances in AI are akin to a modern day space race with enormous corporate and national budgets employed to keep ahead of the curve. West quotes a 2017 statement from China’s state council to “build a domestic AI industry worth almost $150 billion by 2030”. The key take away from this discussion of deep learning machines is what kind of data sets are we providing AI and can ethics truly be programmed into what are essentially electronic brains? The author wisely advocates for a policy of transparency and a vigilance regarding the decisions humans are making during this nascent moment in the history of robotics.
“We will soon launch a robot that can perform tasks currently done by people with a high school education or less..”
The section on Economic and Social Impact opens with the utopic musings of author Edward Bellamy, in his vision of the 21st century automation has led to shortened work weeks and happy citizens who can spend their leisure time mentoring the young. The betterment of themselves and their community has become their focal point in life because their basic needs of housing, food and health care have been met. Here West takes the positive view suggesting that despite the fact that we are in a time where health benefits and secure careers are a more distant reality for workers that it takes a societal change about the very nature of work to shift to a more equitable economy. The shared or collaborative economy is defined by services exchanged peer-to peer, usually through an electronic platform, the major example being Uber drivers. Employees enjoy time flexibility and a certain amount of autonomy but give up the certainty of the health care support system. In order for these models to be sustainable West argues there will have to be unionization or at the very least agreed upon minimums in remunerations for these “new collar workers”. There are now millions of Americans joining in this type of work, popularly known as the “gig” economy. The future of work does a good job of introducing the reader to a host of models that could help restore the traditional benefits arrangement of full employment, the key concept to all of them being the notion of portability of benefits. The idea is laid out this way, since corporations are moving towards limited contracts workers then benefits such as medical leave and retirement should move with the employee instead of the employer; this creates a new social contract between company and worker. Regardless of which scheme is adopted the most heated area of debate is who will pay to support this shift in the economy? Assorted tax proposals are discussed within this book with one common conclusion, namely that the wealthy will have to give up something to help those displaced. Reading between the lines here the reader must ask themselves, who is actually benefiting from cutting back workers and technological efficiencies? In our lifetimes have we not seen the focus of business move from rank and file workers to the shareholder? Whatever the outcome it is clear that working citizens will have to leverage the power of democratic and educational institutions to regain their seat at the table of our shifting economy.
In the section “Action Plan” West asks if our political system is up to the challenge of structural change, even a casual observer of the present state of deadlock in the beltway the answer seems dubious. Unlike political struggles in the past however inaction concerning displacement of workers due to automation will increase the distrust of democratic institutions West agues. Anyone experiencing the tumults of the twenty four hour news cycle would have to agree. The book draws on some of the best economic historians to outline a fascinating new legal structure referred to as “Republic 2.0” where the various initiatives for change could have a chance to flourish. The basic understanding is that politics cannot be separated from economy and that even the amending of the U.S. constitution to reflect a people first attitude in the new economy must be considered. The future of work is required reading for anyone concerned about their place in the future labor force, once read it should serve as a guide for equitable change for activists and policy makers alike.
Mr. Darrell M. West is Vice President of the governance program at the Brooking Institute
Scott Dennis is the Executive Director of the Blue Collar Think Tank @bcthinktank