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When People Become Superfluous

Among those who study the advance of artificial intelligence (AI), there is a debate about its impact on the future of work. Many think that the major impending transformation will merely be a continuation of what has always happened when technology disrupts the economy. The fifty-year period beginning in 1870 introduced the internal combustion engine, the telephone and electric transmission into the economy. Those displaced found other ways to make a living. And we don’t lament the loss of jobs for blacksmiths or those guys who used to light kerosene streetlamps each day at dusk.

Similarly, the age of the internet has resulted in the creation of new professions from SEO Specialists to webmasters. So, it’s not hard to imagine that, a decade from now, there may be a big demand for Visual World Designers as augmented reality becomes a normal part of our technology landscape.

Yet, there are technology leaders from Elon Musk to MIT’s Andrew McAfee who warn that the transformation will happen so quickly that the workforce won’t be able to adjust. The result: massive unemployment. The pandemic has given us a peak at this future. Economists and politicians argue about whether high unemployment is the result of fear of infection, absence of childcare options or government benefits paying low-skilled workers to stay home. Whatever the cause, businesses have had to adapt. Restaurants will touchlessly take your order and your money by way of an app on your smartphone. Tele sales have replaced in person visits, denying revenue to the travel industry. And, the fitness industry has moved online in a big way.

Each of these tech-enabled shifts has denied job opportunities to those whose labor was essential to supporting a now obsolete business model. And government has adapted by piling on benefits to those put out of work. Can a universal basic income be far behind if these changes turn out to be permanent?

The rapid adoption of artificial intelligence has been affecting the job market for decades. Robots apply welds with consistent quality and cost in auto factories. AI writes news releases and prepares tax returns. And long-haul trucks will soon be driven by remote control. So, why wouldn’t we believe that trend will continue as AI continues to improve efficiency?

Specialization and the division of labor according to skills and efficiency began with the formation of the earliest cities. That’s why urbanization has always been a marker for economic progress. But in the highly specialized world of artificial intelligence, only elite professionals will have the skills to compete for the few jobs that remain. Surgeons who can utilize robotics to improve medical outcomes; analysts who can mine data and create new algorithms; and, mechanics who can repair machinery that becomes more and more sophisticated are likely to be the long-term winners of this new economy.

What about the rest? In my new book, I imagine sixty percent of the population unemployed and living on universal basic income. Most move to the fifteen major American economic hubs where they can afford to live in group homes. The few who don’t move to the cities live in the dystopian remains of middle-class America – a world where there is limited economic opportunity and few of the luxuries enjoyed by the privileged few.

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