In last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, there was little discussion about the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics and their impact on America’s citizenry. Candidate Andrew Yang touted his sweepstakes of $1,000 a month for 10 website registrants, but his proposal, like those around universal basic income or robot taxes, have not yet struck a chord with the public. Ironically, technology has become so ingrained into people’s lives that Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” requires an update.
The toxicity of politics and declining civility of the electorate is rooted in addiction to 120-character news cycles and idolized selfie-promoted social networks. The real educational debate is not between charter and public schools, but how to evolve the curriculum to meet modern demands. Graduating students who hope to enter an increasingly mechanized workforce need to be re-engineered with lifelong learning skills, which better adapt to an evolving society.
Reaching for robot taxes
So far, only two candidates — entrepreneur Yang and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — have drafted proposals to address the impending robot revolution. De Blasio aims to slow the adoption of autonomous systems by imposing robot taxes on large corporations that replace workers with machines.
“The scale of automation in our economy is increasing far faster than most people realize, and its impact on working people in America and across the world, unless corralled, will be devastating,” opined de Blasio in Wired last week. “Already, according to the Brookings Institution, 36 million American jobs are ‘highly likely’ to be automated out of existence in the coming decades.”
The idea of robot taxes was first suggested by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 2017 to address the presumed loss of payroll revenues because of robots replacing workers in large numbers. Payroll taxes account for more than one-third of the annual federal budget, or close to $1.3 trillion.
If elected president — currently, de Blasio is polling below the minimum threshold to qualify for upcoming debates — New York’s mayor would enact a new federal agency to address the issue of job displacement.
“My plan calls for a new federal agency, the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA), to oversee automation and safeguard jobs and communities,” he exclaimed.
Yang backs UBI
Yang, a successful businessman, former RobotLab speaker, and founder of Venture For America (VFA), is another future-focused candidate. He said he believes strongly in the power of startups to transform economically-challenged communities.
“For years, I believed new business formation was the answer — if we could train a new generation of entrepreneurs and create the right jobs in the right places, we could stop the downward spiral of growing income inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness,” he said.
However, even with the success of VFA in 14 cities, the non-politician demurs its impact in reversing the tide of automation. “It became clear to me that job creation will not outpace the massive impending job loss due to automation,” Yang said. “Those days are simply over.”
The Yang2020 website presents the distressing statistics very succinctly: “New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million U.S. jobs, and in the next five to 10 years, they will eliminate millions more. A third of all American workers are at risk of permanent unemployment.”
The answer is universal basic income (UBI), according to Yang. “As president, my first priority will be to implement the Freedom Dividend, a universal basic income for every American adult over the age of 18: $1,000 a month, no strings attached, paid for by a new tax on the companies benefiting most from automation,” he stated.
Robot taxes versus UBI?
In fact, de Blasio’s op-ed on robot taxes was directed at Yang’s UBI proposal. The mayor critiqued the Freedom Dividend as “woefully inadequate, and [it] has the potential to do more harm than good.”
“UBI overlooks the intrinsic value of a job, believing the financial life support of a monthly check can substitute for meaningful employment,” de Blasio wrote. “At worst, it’s a sleight-of-hand trick, telling Americans that automation will create a better future for all while it instead locks middle-class families into unemployment and ensures the profits created by new technological advancement flow only to the wealthy.”
Instead, de Blasio described how the “revenue [from robot taxes] would go right into a new generation of labor-intensive, high-employment infrastructure projects and new jobs in areas such as health care and green energy that would provide new employment. Displaced workers would be guaranteed new jobs created in these fields at comparable salaries.”
While other Democratic presidential candidates rage on by enumerating the almost infinite inadequacies of a second term for Donald Trump, only de Blasio and Yang so far have had the courage to address the root causes of the president’s popularity, while both robot taxes and UBI proposals are controversial. Last March, the Bookings Institute released a study that reportedly found a direct connection between robots and votes.
“Our data confirm both a stark history of automation in Trump country and substantial future exposure … more work flux, more job uncertainty, and potentially more political disruption,” said the report’s authors. Their findings were further substantiated by vote tallies from the congressional 2018 election.
“At the state level, all but one of the 10 states most heavily exposed to future job-market changes cast its electoral votes for President Trump in 2016,” they said.” And all but one of the top 20 congressional districts most susceptible to automation are Republican ones. All but four of the top 50 districts most exposed to automation elected Republicans in 2018.”
The “robot-Trump” connection was first posited by professors Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University
”The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots,” they wrote. “You don’t see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections. So it’s really a post-2008 phenomenon.”
Today’s Democratic frontrunner, septuagenarian Joe Biden, claimed to understand full well the challenges of the future of work, but his recommendation to concerned parents was “play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night [and] make sure that kids hear words.”
The Robot Report is launching the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo will focus on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, and registration will be open soon.