A Future With No Driver

10/17/2018 - Monocle Journal

It was Andrew Yang’s job to create jobs. As the founder of non-profit organisation Venture for America, he used to place top graduates from the best universities around the country at start-ups in US cities in desperate need of employment growth. These often included traditional industrial centres like Detroit and Baltimore that are heavily reliant on one particular industry, or even on one large multinational company. The idea behind this initiative was to use the energy and talents of these young and bright individuals to stimulate new kinds of ventures and industries, to eventually broaden the scope of employment opportunities in these somewhat economically backward, one-dimensional cities. And although he loved his work, Yang was overcome with anxiety, eventually changing course completely.  

The source of his anxiety stemmed from the devastation of the American workforce participation rate – currently sitting at a multi-decade low of 62.9%, in line with that of El Salvador and Puerto Rico. As a key contributor to this trend, Yang points to the accelerating rate at which jobs are being automated, exacerbated further by the rapidly advancing capabilities of artificial intelligence in almost every imaginable field of work. This fear was further entrenched in Yang after being the CEO at Venture for America for over six years and extensively touring the country to better understand the employment landscape. It was then that Yang began to realise that the economy had changed almost beyond recognition to what has conventionally been understood as the way of life and work in America.   A Future With No Driver 

Yang describes the current employment phenomenon as “a bathtub with a giant hole ripped in the bottom.” The giant hole – expanding in size every day – is created by the jobs being lost to large-scale automation in some of the country’s most labour-intensive industries. In this sense, Yang argues that the tried and tested economic models for containing the rise of unemployment will no longer hold in the era of AI. No matter how many jobs we create, no matter how much water we pour into the bath, the tub will inevitably be emptied.  

In the face of this jobs apocalypse, Andrew Yang has decided it is time to take drastic action. He is running for President of the United States of America in 2020. Whilst perhaps wildly ambitious and arguably quixotic, Yang believes that his core campaign slogan – “Let’s Put Humanity First” – is one that will resonate with the millions whom he estimates will lose their jobs to AI and automation in the coming years. And if you think that running for President is a drastic step to take in solving an economic problem, Yang’s proposed solution, as stated in his campaign poster, may seem even more radical – “It’s time for Universal Basic Income.”  

As Yang explains, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not a new idea in the realm of economics, but one that is becoming more realistic and pressing in the age of artificial intelligence. What UBI entails is a no-questions-asked sum of money provided each month to every citizen by the government ($1 000 in the case of Yang’s campaign). This, according to Yang, is in the hope of mobilising more productive ways of working amongst those who have been – and the many that will in the future be – forced out of jobs by the mass adoption of machines. And whilst at first it may sound rather counter-intuitive, in the sense that such a scheme would only exacerbate the problem by encouraging those not working to be less inclined to find work, extensive research and trials in countries such as Finland have shown that the opposite is in fact true.  

These examples have shown that given some sense of financial security, those on the edge of workforce participation – as well as those in low-skilled, minimum-wage positions – are more likely to go out and find less menial and more economically productive work. With an eye on national spending deficits, such a scheme, Yang argues, whilst requiring a shift in budget from other grants and benefits such as food stamps and unemployment cheques, has the potential to drive real grassroots-level growth in the economy, through more meaningful employment and the micro-business opportunities that stem from the sense of security afforded by a UBI.  

As a key example to support his case, the Presidential hopeful points to a surprisingly significant group of workers in the US – truckers. According to Yang, there are approximately 3.5 million truckers in the US, accounting for over a full percentage point of the 325 million strong US population. A surprisingly significant group indeed. But a group that is at very high risk of being replaced, or at least displaced, in the near future by the inevitability of self-driving trucks.  

These 3.5 million truckers, as Yang explains, are merely a marker for the far-reaching and devastating effects that will accompany the AI and automation revolution as it grows exponentially from its current embryonic levels. Surrounding the immediate freight industry are, for example, reliant and supporting industries such as retail and hospitality, which are financially entangled with the business of trucking. In such a situation, where in a best-case scenario just a third of long-distance truck drivers’ jobs are replaced by self-driving vehicles, it is not unrealistic to imagine that the loss of those million customers could leave entire towns economically devastated. For without the need for sleep and sustenance, robotic truck drivers will roll right past the very same sleepy towns that once served their human equivalents burgers and coffee at late-night diners and put them up at roadside inns for some much-needed rest.  

Expand this picture into every imaginable industry and one will begin to realise that AI and automation cannot be ignored as a massively significant social and economic determinant of our future existence. And other than ignoring the issue or underplaying the scale at which these technologies will transform our current way of working and being, very few forward-looking contingency plans have been put in place. Many economists disregard the more dystopian prophecies that involve the widespread decimation of workforces through automation, citing the Industrial Revolution as a case where such a mechanised revolution did not, as predicted, cause the complete collapse of society. But Yang, along with many industry experts, are convinced that this time it is different.  

One such expert, who believes that the AI revolution is indeed a totally different scenario, is the former two-term Chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. In an interview with The New York Times, Bernanke says, "You have to recognise realistically that AI is qualitatively different from an internal combustion engine in that it was always the case that human imagination, creativity, social interaction, those things were unique to humans and couldn`t be replicated by machines." But Bernanke is not entirely correct. For whilst in recent years very many useful AI applications have been developed – and it is highly likely that repetitive and labour-intensive industries will be the first to experience large-scale disruption – in truth, artificial intelligence is still very far from displaying anything approaching human imagination, creativity, social interaction, or any of the other particular human traits that Bernanke invokes. Far more simplistically, AI is more likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, since it is the low-skilled jobs that will disappear first.  

AI still struggles to grasp the many complexities that exist in the most human of all endowments – language and communication. While toddlers have a natural affinity for language, nascent AI systems still have great difficulty in understanding even text-based statements, not to mention verbal communications and the nuances that exist within the context of these utterances, such as tone, volume and pace. Thus, while many truck drivers in America may in the near-future be in danger of losing their jobs, work that necessitates high levels of interpersonal interactions – that rely on the subtleties and nuances of language and a certain degree of emotional intelligence – seem to be safe for at least the foreseeable future.

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