Rethinking work and pay in the age of robotics

BIZ AUTO-TESLA-PRODUCTION SJ
Robots are used extensively on the assembly line at a Tesla auto plant in California.

I cringe when I think of the near future: Millions of volunteers working for practically nothing, while the automation revolution displaces more and more of the human element from the workplace.

I recall the volunteer summit in Philadelphia 20 years ago this spring, where political elites asked the young and the poor to work for nothing, beginning with cleaning the streets and neighborhoods, as if this was the American way. It is not. Fitting people into the market economy is, and we need to find new ways to compensate people for the work that is left as machines take over much of both blue- and white-collar production.

Truth be told, if CEOs really care about profits they are already committed to removing the human element as much as possible from the workplace. We are on the verge of unprecedented employee displacement. All the while the best and the brightest are in our engineering schools, spurring the robotic revolution on with creativity and innovation. Where are the corresponding geniuses in our economic schools, forging new ways to compensate people for the remaining work that will be out there, especially in the volunteer sector?

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan called government the problem, as if the churches and private charities could really compensate for an increasing federal safety net. By 1995 futurist Jeremy Rifkin declared in his book, The End of Work, that near-workerless factories and virtual companies loomed. “Unused human labor is the central overriding reality of the coming era,” he wrote.

By 2015 Martin Ford, the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm, wrote in his book, Rise of the Robots, about “technology and the threat of a jobless future.” That same year the Inquirer reported on the Evolve Hotel in Sasebo, Japan, manned almost totally by robots (including a porter robot) to save costs. In America there are now preliminary models of driverless cars and trucks.

Whatever is in store next for the computer revolution, we better start thinking about a compensation revolution, and start finding ways to reimburse the work of the social capital sector that will be needed in spite of the ascent of robotics.

It is nobler to work for compensation and do more for society, than to work for nothing or next to nothing and do less. And the exchange of plastic rather than currency offers opportunities for creative compensation since information about volunteer work for credits can be recorded and retrieved quickly, be it electronic coupons (for food and dining) , passes (for theaters and cultural centers), or digital cash (imprinted with a code) for living expenses.

I did not get paid for working on the Philadelphia chapters of the World Future Society and the National Space Society, but I felt a major city should have such organizations. Who knows what inspiration young people took away from meeting our members? Social capital improvements are not so easily defined in terms of economic returns, but they require  human interaction and are therefore an important source of future employment in spite of the growth of automation.

There is plenty of work out there that humans can do, but we must end volunteerism as we know it and forge a new era of compensation for social service. With business efficiency we try to compete with machines. Perhaps we should really reevaluate the work ethic we inherited and take the dividend of more leisure time (for culture building activities) that was promised to us by the computer revolution so many years ago. This would spread the work hours available to more people and lead to, in the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell, a fuller and more satisfying life.

Mitchell Gordon is vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Space Society. mfgordon11@verizon.net

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