Are humans becoming obsolete in the workforce? Many experts believe the answer is yes. The amazing win for IBM’s Watson computer over humans on the quiz show Jeopardy, proved that automated systems are getting closer to reaching human intelligence levels.
IBM is currently adapting this machine intelligence architecture to commercial applications including systems that will act as medical consultants, financial analysts, marketing specialists, and even machines that would one day make more equitable decisions than human lawmakers, judges, and police.
Though today’s robots may not be very impressive, roboticist Hans Moravec believes that within the next decade or so, we will create ‘bots with human-like bodies that can express reasoning and emotions similar to us, and possess the competence to perform nearly all human jobs.
According to analysts, half of Americans work in people-powered industries, such as fast food restaurants, retail stores, delivery companies, and other areas that require minimum skills. All of these jobs are prime targets for robotic replacement.
Some stores are already beginning to deploy automated checkout systems. By 2015, voice-recognition ‘bots will take over customer service roles, as well as chef duties in restaurants. By 2020 or before, questions such as “Would you like fries with that?” could be uttered by a smiling machine at the register.
Cisco Systems analyst Dave Evan predicts that robots with advanced artificial intelligence could one day replace most workers. Although today’s unemployment hovers around 8-to-10 per cent, this is mild compared with what we can expect as robots become more mainstream. It is estimated that by 2030, 50 million jobs will be lost to machines, and by 2040, robots could grab more than half of all human jobs.
When this writer grew up during The Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%, which caused soup lines, riots, and turmoil throughout the country. In our robotic future, 50% of workers will become jobless, which could bring about an economic disaster unlike anything the world has ever experienced.
Is there anything we can do to prevent this catastrophe? Futurist Marshall Brain in his Robotic Freedom blog examines the problem and offers suggestions that would provide humanity with all the benefits from tomorrow’s robot wonders, while protecting us from the financial devastations of unemployment.
Brain believes that America should create a $25,000 annual stipend for every U.S. adult. These payments would be paid for through a variety of possibilities. The government could allow ads on currency and public properties, rebates on natural resources, create a national lottery, launch a consumption tax, and levy taxes on robots, automated systems, travel, and emails.
The U.S. collects over $2 trillion in taxes annually, which works out to about $20,000 per household. It’s easy to imagine a program that would pay every adult $25,000. The stipend would not need to be created immediately. It could be phased in incrementally over the next couple of decades. By 2030 though, Americans could be enjoying a financially secure middle class or better lifestyle loaded with leisure time.
Equitable wealth distribution like this would allow consumers to spend without fear of losing their jobs. This increased spending could give the economy its biggest boom ever.
How might people spend their extra time in a world where work is eliminated from everyday life? Some may enroll in education programs; others could awaken their creative juices and become entrepreneurs.
Those who enjoy traveling could satisfy lifelong dreams to visit distant points on Earth, or become space pioneers and grab a Virgin Galactic trip to the International Space Station; or join other colonists in communities planned for Moon, Mars, and artificial habitats hovering above the planet.
Arrival of human level robots marks a transformative time in history. These wonder bots promise a utopian future as dependable household servants, performing unwanted tasks, responding to our every need; but we must first revise our capitalist system before this positive vision can become reality.
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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