Editor’s note: Tom Snyder, executive director of rapidly growing Raleigh-based RIoT and a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, is the newest columnist to join WRAL TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. His “Datafication Nation” columns will be part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.
RALEIGH – Over the past few weeks, I’ve delved into the question about how AI might shape future jobs. Part 1 discussed how technology advancement is the majority driver of economic growth globally. Despite that new technologies often obsolete jobs, tech historically has created far more new jobs than those displaced. Part 2 hypothesized what new jobs might be created in our future, as AI transforms education, energy, and other white collar job sectors.
This week, I’ll share thoughts about what a future might look like if the emerging technologies of today create a different future, where fewer new jobs are created than the jobs that become obsolete.
The middle class was built on an economic theory that you earned income commiserate with your productivity during working hours. The cadence of how people earned income was intimately tied to the production shift. Even today, most knowledge workers are paid based on a 40-hour work week that hails back to that “pay for time worked” model.
All three industrial revolutions (steam, electricity and the internet) enabled massive gains in productivity. But corporations continued a paradigm of the 40-hour work week as the requirement for “full time salary”. People work just as many hours (or more), despite the increased productivity. The productivity gains go largely to the companies and their investors. Other legislation reinforces the time-for-pay model, for example by setting time-based thresholds that dictate when companies must provide healthcare or other benefits.
So how do we consider an advanced AI future where workflows that once took days or months or years for humans to complete can now be automated in a few seconds? For many applications, AI isn’t an evolutionary efficiency improvement, but a near elimination of the variable of time in the completion of work. Companies have a long history of taking productivity gains for themselves, rather than directly translating them to worker pay. I predict that companies will balk at paying employees a full salary if they can conduct today’s in just a few minutes per week with tomorrow’s technology.
Are there other mechanisms by which a society that is based on “cash as the universal tool for commerce” can assure that income flows to all people and throughout an economy?
Let’s look at other ways people make money today that are not based on the “pay-for-time-worked” paradigm. Income is often collected as a derivative of an asset. For example, you can collect rent if you own property. You can receive licensing revenue if you own patents. You can earn royalties if you own rights to original works of art, music and film. You can earn dividends or capital gains if you own stock. You can earn interest if you have capital to lend. The societal challenge is that these forms of largely passive income are largely available only to those who already have existing wealth to leverage.
The American Dream has always been that success can be achieved through hard work to earn income. It was never narrated as the compounding of existing wealth. Will AI further exacerbate our existing societal challenges about the consolidation of wealth to the very smallest percentages of companies and individuals?
In recent years, discussions have emerged about Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a different paradigm to consider. The concept is to feed disposable income into society to be used to cover basic needs, and also to fuel commerce that further circulates money through the economy (as opposed to providing those basic services free of charge, which does not circulate currency).
Right here in North Carolina, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians has been providing between $3,500 and $6,000 of UBI every six-months to all registered members since 1996. Numerous UBI experiments are being conducted across the US and the globe. To fully understand the benefits and drawbacks to this approach will require years of study.
I think UBI is a particularly interesting concept, worthy of exploration, but see zero motivation in our current capitalist culture or political climate to explore it seriously. Some already label it as a form of socialism, which curiously has developed a negative connotation across large segments of the US. [Aside – This is extremely curious to me. Why wouldn’t people want to live in a society that supports everyone equally in a way that everyone is financially safe and secure?]
Industry is experimenting with novel new means of compensation as well. I reported recently on the concept Shutterfly has launched, where they pay photographers a royalty every time one of their original photographs was used to train an AI that is then used to create a new image. This is a novel concept – and perhaps a great legal strategy from an intellectual property perspective – but is incongruent with the salary needs of our current society. Due to the sheer volume of photographs required to train AI, the royalties amount to fractions of pennies in most cases. Nothing close to a living wage.
Should a world emerge where there are significantly fewer work hours available than worker hours seeking to conduct them requires a paradigm shift away from a time-based income economy. Whether that is something more akin to a knowledge-based royalty system, or a societally managed UBI remains to be seen. In any case, we would be looking at a major cultural shift away from the free-market principles of today. That kind of change is multi-generational, not like flipping a light switch.
In the short term, I’m betting AI will not buck the trend, and years from now we’ll recognize that it created more jobs than it eliminated. But that doesn’t mean that discussion, debate and perhaps a few well-prompted AI simulations of our future economy aren’t a good idea.