Slowing the robot apocalypse
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
For more than a year, we have reported exceedingly pessimistic forecasts about the future of jobs: Robots and automation, we've written, are likelier than not to wipe out a large portion of current U.S. employment by 2030 or so. But there are ways to both cushion the blow of automation and meet the challenge posed by China.
Driving the news: The problem isn't only that companies seem likely to automate at a faster and faster pace, but that the U.S. and other advanced economies are doing little to get prepared. Meanwhile — in a tech race against the U.S. — China is in a headlong push to deploy as much advanced robotics as it can.
Here's how to soften the blow:
1. Decide to keep humans in the mix with robots
As of now, report after report tell us not to worry — that robots will not wipe out jobs, but instead work alongside humans. If only it were so easy. In fact, there has to be an affirmative policy decision, either by government, companies or both, to develop automation as a machine-human endeavor.
The likelihood is that government will have to take the lead. "Government will have to step up, a political leader who sees a threat to his own political power," says Jeffrey Brown, head of the future of work project at the Bertelsmann Foundation.
2. Initiate aggressive, long-term job training and upskilling
Even the most optimistic forecasts urge a massive campaign to reskill tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of people around the world. Government should take the lead, but companies need to revive traditional practices of training new workers.
One option: tax incentives. "There can be a knowledge tax credit for training front-line workers," says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
3. Award low-interest education loans, and forgive debt
Education and skills training will be a core fact of life for the the next work force, the next after that, and so on. Everyone will have to up their game, and keep doing so, in everything from AI and medicine to plumbing and electric work.
Skilling and retraining has to be national policy, because the nations that don't do so will fall behind as nations. "In China, the state is leading in establishing new training centers in schools," said Paul Triolo, head of geotechnology at the Eurasia Group.
More: An entire generation of Americans is weighed down by unconscionable college debt. Figure out how to forgive it.
4. Aggressively fund research in AI, robotics and quantum computing
Should Washington assume a central role in the country's development of futuristic technology? Yes. Long-term, aggressive government funding and shaping will be central to both first-out invention and deployment of next-generation technologies.
"We need focused government action," says Samuel Brannen, director of risk and foresight at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Then suddenly we will leap past the Chinese like we did the Soviets."
Go deeper: The AI crossroads: Dystopia vs. utopia