By Nathan Timmerman
There are many avenues into the future that could possibly lead to a calamitous destruction of our society. Climate change, natural disaster, war and an uncertain geopolitical landscape all pose grave dangers, and are routinely discussed. However, there is a perilous change occurring within the fabric of society with substantially more imminent implications than climate change. Something that, unlike war or foreign dictatorship, is rarely addressed and has the potential to ravage the foundations of civilization in a manner never before seen in human history.
Consider this; the largest sector of employment in Canada is retail and service, an industry in which the end is practically visible on the horizon due to online shopping, self checkout and the automation of food production. Mass layoffs are not difficult to imagine.
Another industry that springs to mind when considering the looming redundancy of its employees is transportation, one of the largest employment sectors for men. Self-driving vehicles already exist.
Job elimination due to advancements in AI and robotics is not a distant problem. It is happening right now. One needs only to peek into a modern factory to witness the change. Where once you would have seen rows of people assembling our cars and appliances there are now mostly robots. This process is speeding up and spreading across employment sectors. And it isn’t just blue collar jobs in danger. Many respected white collar vocations like accounting, lawyering and even family physicians could become superfluous in the not-so-distant future.
The World Bank estimates that 57 per cent of jobs could be eliminated in the coming decades, and they are not the only organization making this prediction. Studies from Forrester, the World Economic Forum and more predict a net loss of jobs due to automation. The industrial revolution is often cited as a similar turning point in history, where jobs were eliminated en masse. But the coming implementation of robotics and AI is not analogous to the industrial revolution, which also spawned new jobs. Modern technologies are not going to be adopted if they create jobs at a one to one ratio. It makes zero financial sense to replace a worker with a robot if it only means the creation a more specialized job requiring higher pay. New jobs will be created, but there will not be a new employment opportunity for every job that is eliminated.
Envisioning a society in which millions of people no longer possess marketable skills is nearly unfathomable for most people, and almost no one is discussing what to do about the possibility. There are very few options for addressing the situation. We can essentially ignore it and allow society to crumble, or implement a universal basic income (UBI), something that fills many people with a nearly palpable level of revulsion.
Many criticize UBI, believing that people will descend into a downward spiral of laziness, self-destructive behaviour and alcoholism if they don’t need to work. However, the few trials that have been conducted have not found this to be the case. In a trial that took place in the ’70s in the small prairie town of Dauphin, Man., it was found that employment rates remained steady, families completed an extra year of schooling and hospitalizations decreased.
The future may hold the slow corrosion of modern society, but that doesn’t need to be the case. The automation of menial jobs could usher in a new age for humanity – one where people no longer need to slave away at tasks they despise, but are free to pursue their education, creative interests or whatever else fills their lives with a sense of meaning and purpose.