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A philosopher discusses what happens when the robots start taking more jobs

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


LAWRENCE — It's scary, daunting and perhaps overwhelming to think about, but Oxford University researchers have estimated nearly half of U.S. jobs could become automated in the next 20 years.

It's probably easy to just live in denial about robots taking our jobs, even ones that require a bachelor's or master's degree.

A University of Kansas philosopher who examines the intersection of philosophy of science and technology says the threat is very real and should shape how people educate themselves and consider major policy implications in the future.

John Symons, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy, discusses the broad implications of so many jobs and aspects of daily life becoming automated. Symons has authored and edited several books and peer-reviewed journal articles on a variety of philosophical topics. His broad research interests focus on metaphysics and epistemology of science and the philosophy of psychology.

Q: First, why is it important to have a philosopher thinking about and working on this issue?

Symons: It's not that this is the sole concern of philosophers. It is important for all of us to take the transformative role of technology seriously. Philosophers have some important responsibilities here, though.

Logic and the analytic tradition in philosophy did the foundational work in the 20th century that gave rise to the emergence of modern computer science. It is also true that moral philosophers can encourage critical reflection on the purposes and goals that inform the development of technology. 

We philosophers address questions that all thoughtful people seem to ask, but for which science and engineering seem to have no answers. When we ask what the value of some way of life is, or when we ask what goals we should pursue, these are not questions that can be answered by physics, chemistry or biology. Nevertheless, these questions are unavoidable. The changing nature of work and economic life presents us with very basic questions about the purpose of human life.

Q: What has already happened along these lines, and why does it seem like people have a hard time comprehending replacement of certain jobs with machines?

Symons: Most forms of employment that we currently see as meaningful and useful are likely to be automated in the coming decades. For many of us, our work has provided a meaningful center for our lives. At its best, work is a source of personal realization dignity and social status, in addition to allowing us to pay the bills.

As traditional paid employment changes due to the effects of artificial intelligence, we will see profound effects on established social relations with their associated and now obvious political shockwaves. The declining social status of the average American male in the service economy, the internationalization of commerce and the central role of finance in recent decades have already led us to our current political situation.

Q: How would you advise both students and perhaps professionals who need to work for several more years on how to ensure they can still become valuable when the world of employment is so different and many of today’s jobs are taken by machines?

Symons: Well, I think we should be careful about too quickly regarding the value of people in economic terms. Your value is not determined by the status of your job or the price that the market attaches to your usefulness. One way that we can rethink value in a world without traditional employment is to think about human excellence in terms of achievement. We value excellence in a range of pursuits, many of which are not marketable. Few people will pay for poetry. This does not mean that poetry is of no value. For some of us, the pursuit of excellence in art, science and sport, for example, is intrinsically valuable. 

Students at KU presently should be careful about being too swayed by secure-seeming traditional vocational paths. It is likely that many of the fields that we think of as reliable sources of income will be dominated by artificial intelligence. It is better for our students to pursue skills that will allow them to collaborate with and supplement the powers of artificial intelligence.

Human imagination, sensitivity, contextual understanding, social skills, style, passion and appreciation of beauty are not replaceable by artificial intelligence in the near future.  Being an expert at being human and being able to use artificial intelligence as a tool is a recipe for a lucrative future. By contrast, excessively vocational career paths are likely to prove a dead end. Any job or role which can be reduced to a simple recipe can be reduced to an algorithm. Software is just a string of recipes. 

Q: Separately, what would you advise people to do on addressing the social concerns, especially if we are having less contact with others outside of a phone or computer screen?

Symons: Students should certainly try to learn the social graces that are being lost in the age of screens. But I do not worry about having less contact with others because of technology. The real issue is the quality of that contact. If our interactions are reduced to efforts in marketing ourselves on Instagram or Snapchat, this is a significant loss. We are impoverished by it.

Q: What could be potential policy responses that might come to the forefront to try to mitigate or address the effects of this type of shift? You see some attention lately in newspapers on advocacy for debating a basic minimum income, for example.

Symons: Many of us are becoming extraordinarily wealthy as a result of the efficiencies and new levels of productivity deriving from technology, but many more of us are finding it difficult to adjust to the kinds of low-wage service employment that are increasingly the norm. So-called "good-paying jobs" that are accessible to people with minimal levels of education are disappearing rapidly. For example, 3.5 million Americans currently work as professional truck drivers. These are reasonably well-paid roles that are predominantly held by males with low levels of education. It is likely that market pressures will eliminate these jobs in 5-10 years as AI-driven trucks prove safer and more efficient than human-driven trucks. The loss of these jobs and the many jobs that support the trucking industry will be another powerful blow to working-class America. 

Those with access to capital and education or those who are highly motivated, with high social skills, or high intelligence are likely to find themselves thriving in the coming years as prices for goods and services drop and as new opportunities for wealth creation appear. However, for the vast majority of us, who are not blessed with luck or exceptional talent, there are difficult economic times ahead. 

Basic minimum income, or BMI, is getting attention among some influential members of the elite in the technology industry, the likes of Elon Musk, for example, because they regard increasing income inequality due to technology as a threat to the stability of the current economic and political order. The idea of BMI is that we give every citizen some basic level of income as a cash payment. This is not a new or completely unprecedented idea. Alaska, for example, disperses around $1,000 per year from investment income from the Alaska Permanent Fund to each citizen.

Presumably a meaningful BMI for individuals, a payment of around $25,000 per year, for example, is not feasible economically. A BMI on that scale would cost around 8 trillion dollars per year — twice the size of the current federal budget — but even if it were an option, it is not obvious to me that a BMI is the right response to our current predicament.  

Historically, the idea that we should provide a BMI or a wage-floor for all has been endorsed in the 20th century by conservative economists, most famously by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others, but also by Martin Luther King. These thinkers recognized that market economies have been the most effective system for creating wealth and opportunity for human beings. Inevitably, a market economy will have winners and losers. Because we value human persons, it is important to ensure that losing in the economic marketplace does not condemn our fellow citizens to degrading and humiliating harms. It is a simple fact that most of us feel moved to help our fellow human beings when they are in need.

As a stop-gap measure, rather than a BMI, I favor gradual expansion of the earned income tax credit. This scheme already serves to provide economic support to Americans in a manner that does not disincentivize employment while maintaining the dignity of workers. I would also advocate the elimination of well-intentioned minimum wage laws in order to permit uneducated workers to compete economically against machines. When combined with the earned income tax credit, the elimination of the minimum wage would permit unskilled workers a decent living wage while allowing everyone who chooses it the dignity of work.  

Our current economy is extremely abundant, and we can certainly afford to refocus our efforts on making the situation of those displaced by technology easier. However, government payments are not going to eliminate our need for meaningful and rewarding ways of spending our days. Full human lives require deep interpersonal relationships, commitment to significant projects, the pursuit of excellence, the recognition of value, a sense of personal dignity and many other things that are simply not part of market calculations and which simply cannot be bought and sold. 

Adversity and struggle, the ability to achieve some end or overcome some obstacle also seem to be part of what it means to live a good life. Comfort is nice, but it does not suffice. We hope to be great and to be genuinely worthy of the love of others. In recent decades, we have expressed many of these essential aspects of our being through our paid employment. It is probably time that most of us find other ways. 

So, that's a long way of saying that I don't think that policy solutions are really the answer. We need to imagine new, non-work-related ways, of being our best selves. 

Photo via WikiCommons.