There’s a restaurant near my house that serves salads and stir fry.
But it doesn’t employ a single cashier. Instead, there are rows of machines that allow you to select and place your order. A few minutes later, you pick up your meal, hardly having to interact with any humans.
This is an example of automation. A traditional low-skill job being replaced by technology — specifically machines and robots.
Many view this as progress. Technology is doing work for people, so we don’t have to do it ourselves. And it’s cheaper for companies, who can use technology to employ fewer people. It can lead to lower prices and faster service.
But to those who might have had that cashier job, automation is deeply concerning. And this concern was at the root of why some in middle America voted for Donald Trump.
Part of president-elect Donald Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again” is to bring jobs back to the US. These jobs that have either been moved abroad or cut altogether to save companies money.
And as president-elect, Trump has made a very public show of seeking to reverse that trend.
In November, he negotiated with Carrier to keep about 800 jobs in Indiana that were slated to move to Mexico. On Wednesday, he announced that Sprint and OneWeb would each bring or bring back thousands of jobs to America — though the Sprint and OneWeb jobs were part of SoftBank’s already-announced commitment to add 50,000 jobs in the United States.
Promoting individual instances of job creation seems like a decent, immediate solution to the automation and exportation of low- and middle-skill jobs. And it’s easy to see why these moves make many Americans hopeful.
But it is a short-term fix to a very big, gnarly problem.
Trump is largely saving jobs that will be automated in the future. And if people keep waiting for their jobs to come back, rather than try to retrain in fields that are growing, the problem will get worse.
And I say this as someone whose job is in danger of eventually being automated. Publications like the AP already have some articles being written by robots rather than journalists.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking summed up the key automation issue well in a recent op-ed.
“The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining,” he wrote in The Guardian. “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”
Universal Basic Income and the rise of trillionaires
One possible long-term solution for automation is universal basic income (UBI). Popularised by Silicon Valley, it’s the notion that the government will pay people whether or not they work. You could earn more on top of the UBI by working, but the intent of the UBI would be to ensure that even those who do not work can maintain a basic standard of living.
But there are problems with doling out free money. The biggest, perhaps, is that it ignores the fact that people want to work.
“One problem is that a UBI does nothing to replace the sense of reward or purpose that comes from a job,” Business Insider’s Josh Barro explains. “It gives you money, but it doesn’t give you the sense that you got the money because you did something useful.”
Sam Altman, the head of prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, is a big proponent of UBI. He thinks automation is inevitable, and, like Hawking, that only the most creative people will be employed in the future. Those people will likely be inventors and entrepreneurs who create the jobs they hold, and they will be astronomically wealthy — which will only increase the resentment the lower class feels toward the elite.
“We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it,” Altman told Business Insider’s Chris Weller during a discussion about UBI. “And that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”
Another long-term solution to automation is to retrain and educate people in fields that are growing — like computer science and engineering. But that takes time and it requires wider access to affordable, higher education.
So, what’s the real solution for technology eating our world and our jobs?
That’s still unclear. But one thing is certain:
What Trump is doing may be the first step to solving the automation problem. But don’t get used to it.
It might be a solution for you right now, but it won’t be a solution for your children.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.