We’ve all heard the stories and speculation about the growing use of automation in every aspect of our lives. From self-driving cars to factories that barely need human intervention, the rate at which we’re able to replace actual human workers with a technological process seems to be growing exponentially. And all of this can be more than a little scary. So, as this approach to commerce continues to proliferate, what will our future actually look like? Here are five ways in which automation might change the world (for better or for worse).
Increased Productivity, Fewer Jobs
A boost to productivity is the whole point of automation: why hire a human who you have to pay every week to perform a task when you can design a robot to do the same thing much more efficiently for far less money? We’ll be able to produce goods at a much faster and more cost-effective rate, but who’s to say that those reduced costs will be reflected in the actual price of those goods? And perhaps more importantly, even if there’s a negligible drop in consumer prices, how are the workers who have been displaced by automation supposed to afford them? Which leads us to the next effect of automation….
Skyrocketing Income Inequality
All that increased productivity we’ve been talking about isn’t going to mean anything to the displaced employee, but it’s certainly going to lead to greater and greater profit margins for their employer and the rest of the corporate class. And it isn’t just the laboring class that is vulnerable to this kind of displacement. As Nils J. Nillson puts it: “Soon to be affected are even some mid-level professionals such as attorneys, radiologists, stockbrokers, and newspaper writers.” The higher up you are on the ladder, the more this is going to benefit you; the lower you are, the more harm it’s going to do.
An Even Greater Need For Higher Education
As routine unskilled labor is replaced more and more by technology, workers will need to become more and more specialized in order to keep up with the needs of the market. Higher education, whether in a highly skilled trade or an academic field, is going to become a near necessity. New fields will certainly expand at an incredible rate, particularly surrounding the design and maintenance of these automated processes. But can we really expect everyone to go into such work? Or for a 40-year-old factory worker to go back to school to learn an entirely new trade now that his career no longer exists?
More Competition In Creative And Artisanal Fields
The automation boom may, in fact, lead to the expansion of some fields not directly related to it. When almost every consumer good is being produced on a massive commercial scale, in such a way to minimize costs as much as possible, we may see an even greater value placed on artisan goods than we already have in the last decade. Again, though, these will be goods for the well-off and seemingly won’t benefit the working class. There might be an even greater social cache to owning handmade furniture, for example. Creative fields, in general, could become even more competitive than they already are, as an educated working class tries to find its place in this new world.
Universal Basic Income?
One solution to this problem may be one you’ve heard being discussed recently, and it’s a relatively simple one: a Universal Basic Income. The idea is that every single person would receive a basic income that is enough to live on, automatically. There would still be employers and there would still be jobs, as citizens attempt to make something more with their lives or climb that proverbial ladder. But in an era in which sustainable employment might be incredibly hard to come by, it would make sure that everyone would, at the very least, be alright. Because, in this possible future, that might just be the best they could hope for.