Increasing levels of automation are highly desirable, provided they are accompanied by an equitable distribution of wealth into those communities who have been “overtaken” by those same automated systems.
Reflecting these concerns in a LinkedIn post, mechatronics engineering student Abhijit Menon asks if moving towards complete automation means we are moving towards a society with no work to do. Jonas Berge, Director, Applied Technology of Emerson Automation Solutions in Singapore replied “There will always be stuff to do. From the book Aundance: ‘in 1862, 90% of our workforce were farmers. By the 1930s, the number was 21%. Today it’s less than 2%.’ He adds that humans have consistently demonstrated an ability to find new things to do that are of greater value when jobs have been outsourced or automated.
Berge continued “A positive way to look at it is that more and more people are getting higher and higher education. They don’t want to do manual labour like data collection on hot, cold, rainy, windy days etc. They want to put their education to good use. Therefore plants have to be modernised not only for productivity, but also to fit the profile and expectations of future workers – those coming to the industry today.”
Rajesh Mehta, Energy Controls Coordinator at City of Mississauga, reassured the young student, saying “Think about who is going to build these robots, program them and maintain them.”
But Menon countered by asking if building and programming the robots would ultimately be done by the robot itself or some other automatic device, thus letting go of the middle man.
Stefan Mutschlechner, an automation expert for biogas plants in Bolzano, Italy commented that “Most people are still working more than 40 hours a week in our modern society. It’s strange in an full automatic world. I think the right way to invest our time is to invest it in, our children, our families.”
Managing this 21st century challenge requires a sea change in thinking. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says there’s a ‘pretty good chance’ universal basic income (UBI) will become reality – simply paying people regardless of whether or not they find work. As we go to press, it is interesting that Labour shadow chancellor John McDonald has also nailed his colours to the UBI mast.
In fact, UBI has seen a surge in popularity in the last year or so. After a long period of dormancy since it was conceived in the 1960s, the idea has gained new life as tech entrepreneurs and business people have started wondering what might happen when robots displace much of the workforce.
But the country taking the lead in this respect is Finland, which plans to give 2000 of its unemployed citizens the equivalent of £480 every month, without any restrictions or conditions attached. Leaders hope the move will improve life quality, reduce unemployment and create jobs. Recipients will not need to prove they are looking for work and the money will be given regardless of any other income the person earns.
The Finnish government will study whether the policy helps recipients find work. It suspects many unemployed people are put off getting a job because they will lose unemployment benefits and therefore be worse off financially – a similar problem to that which tax credits were designed to solve in the UK.