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Outside the Bubble: An automated world

“A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

In science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (later turned into a less-than-compelling movie of the same name starring Will Smith) there are four laws that robots must follow, one of which is stated above.

While such a world, where upgraded human-like robots exist, is currently only plausible in the realm of our imaginations and science fiction, the threat that automation poses to society — with specific regard to employment — may already appear today.

Last week, Bill Gates gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. on the future impact of technology on the economy. In the midst of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Russian takeover of Crimea and midterms, it was easy to miss. Yet, despite its lack of coverage, Gates’ message may be the one of the most important news stories of the week.

In the speech, Gates’ expressed his fear of “software substitution,” saying that “technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set … 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

Granted, this is not the first time that technology has threatened employment before. Fears of technology-based unemployment have been recurring with the industrialization of the past two centuries. One only has to look at the Luddites of 19th century England, where unemployed textile workers destroyed lacemaking machines that were cheaper than human labor.

The classic belief is that while automation may result in a decrease in jobs, it will also increase wages, which will in turn create a greater demand for more products and services, thus creating new jobs for the recently displaced. But as technology has increased, the baseline for the skill sets required has also increased. In the past, technology has only been able to outpace us physically, being able to produce more or read more data within a set limit of time.

However, with the turn towards increasing technological intelligence, technology now threatens our intellectual monopoly as well. Who needs human taxi drivers when automated Google cars can not only drive efficiently, but also can calculate the quickest route based on constantly updated traffic data on weather and delays? The days of robot lawyers or scientists are very far from us, but replacement in fields such as telemarketing, accounting, and retail work may be only 15 to 20 years away.

What could result is an inequality in impact, where those with college degrees in higher-skilled jobs will remain unaffected, while those at the bottom, who lack the needed skill sets, will find themselves unemployed. Unfortunately when profits increase, they will not always trickle down to those who serve as the means of production. Increased profits are often only reinvested by those at the top. As technology outpaces the need for human labor, those at the bottom will then suffer the most.

Gates’ solution is to reform the tax code in order to incentivize businesses to choose humans over automated labor, possibly by removing the income and payroll taxes altogether.  He also discourages the recent call for raises in the minimum wage, because it could “potentially dampen demand” for lower skilled jobs.

However, this would only seem to aggravate the problem rather than take steps toward a solution. Even now, it is much more efficient to have a machine paint a new car than to have an unpaid person paint each car on an assembly line. Work in certain industries will reach a point where the increased efficiency far offsets the smaller initial costs of buying the machinery in the first place.

While I highly doubt we need to fear anything like “I, Robot”, where we live in a dystopian future threatened by robot intelligence, the fact that Bill Gates has commented on the threat of automation to our economy signifies its potential impact. Realistically, a world where all jobs are automated will not happen in our lifetime. But there does exist a potential for a greater economic divide between the rich and poor, which can only weaken — rather than strengthen — a country. Although many Princeton students, who will end up in higher-skilled jobs, may not have to worry about losing out to a machine any time soon, these may be the decisions that future Princetonians will have to decide.

Technological advancements should be celebrated, and definitely should not be destroyed or rallied against. Still, it is important to acknowledge that with these new changes also come with unintended costs that will have large implications on society. Rather than blindly ignoring that potential, we should do our best to address it now, while it is still an idea, and not a reality.

Benjamin Dinovelli is a sophomore from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at bjd5@princeton.edu. 
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