We are on the cusp of a fundamental change in our economy and culture, one as profound in its effects as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 B.C. or the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
Robots and systems of artificial intelligence threaten to take over almost all vocations and professions, from truck drivers to corporate lawyers. These new artificial workers will be tireless, reliable, and fantastically cheap. This promises an era of fantastic prosperity for those with accumulated wealth but a life of despair and soul-destroying dependency for everyone else.
Technophiles love to point out that each wave of technical innovation has improved human productivity and increased the range of good-paying jobs available for ordinary people. Before the industrial revolution, they say, men could work as drivers of horses — after the revolution, as drivers of cars. However, this optimistic scenario overlooks the fact that last time we replaced horses with cars, preserving jobs for humans. This time, we are the horses! The population of working horses plummeted, and the same thing will happen to the population of working human beings. Robots and AI systems don’t need human operators — that’s their whole point and function!
Take, for example, self-driving cars and trucks. Currently, America employs 3 million truck drivers, and another 200,000 taxi drivers and Uber/Lift drivers. All of these could be put out of work through automation. America currently has 1.5 million industrial robots, growing at 12 percent annually. We employ only 9 million Americans in manufacturing — in fifteen years, all American manufacturing jobs could be replaced by robots. Prices for industrial robots are falling, while capabilities steadily improve. This will put increasing downward pressure on wages.
In fact, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne (of Oxford’s Engineering Sciences faculty) estimated in 2013 that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by automation in the next 20 years. Artificial intelligence is making striking gains in emulating such human capacities as social intelligence (empathy and care) and artistic creativity. AI systems will take on more and more of the work in healthcare and elder care (13 million jobs), in design and the arts (2 million), and in education (8 million).
AI expert systems can outperform human physicians in diagnostic tasks, and can replace much of the work of lawyers and legal aides and, ironically enough, the work of engineers (2 million) and computer programmers (4 millions). This is all in addition to the jobs that we are already seeing robots and AI systems take over in food preparation and service (10 million jobs), retail (8 million), clerks (3 million), and secretaries (3 million).
But what’s the harm? Why not simply increase taxes on businesses and the wealthy and finance Universal Basic Income, a kind of universal welfare program that guarantees the livelihood of all Americans, even after all the jobs have dried up? This solution overlooks the grave political, cultural, and psychological costs of such a program. American civilization is based on a work ethic, a set of norms and expectations by which all able-bodied adults (and especially men) secure their sense of self-worth and self-respect by earning the support of their families through their own labor, producing useful goods and services that can be exchanged on the market for life’s basic necessities. Mere income, in the form of a public dole, cannot provide the same psychological and existential benefits. Instead, the majority of Americans will fall prey to a sense of uselessness and futility, feelings of despair that can only be dulled through drugs, alcohol, and gang violence and solidarity of the kind that we already see overtaking so many segments of our population.
The right solution is a combination of a robot and AI system tax (as proposed by Bill Gates in a February 2017 interview with Quartz magazine) and legislation imposing strict liability for all damage, injury, or death caused by robots and other automated systems. Such a tax could be a huge source of revenue. If we impose a $15/hour tax on each Human Equivalent Robot Unit (HERU), each HERU would generate $131,000 in taxes each year. In 20 years, with 20 million HERUs, we could bring in $2.6 trillion in revenues, paying for Social Security and Medicare while closing the deficit.
More importantly, the robot tax would save jobs for human beings, putting a $15/hour floor underneath all human wages. Unlike the minimum wage, the robot tax would increase demand for human labor.
Finally, the strict liability standard would be easy to implement. It would be enforced by our existing system of civil courts, and it would remove robots and AI systems from all interaction with humans in which death or serious injury could result, ensuring the continued humanization of crucial ethical decisions.
Rob Koons is a professor of philosophy specializing in logic, metaphysics, philosophical theology, and political thought. He is the author and editor of six books, including "The Atlas of Reality: A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics" (with Tim Pickavance, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017). He has been active in conservative circles, both nationally and in Texas, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the National Association of Scholars, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, and the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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