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What should we be doing about the rise of automation?
KATHERINE ELKINS and JON CHUN, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities and Visiting Instructor of Humanities, Affiliated Scholar in Scientific Computing

A: KATHERINE ELKINS | Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities JON CHUN | Visiting Instructor of Humanities, Affiliated Scholar in Scientific Computing

For most of human history, automation has dramatically increased our material comfort, wealth and well-being, freeing humans from the “3 Ds” of  “dull, dirty and dangerous” work while providing new and more stimulating work opportunities. The majority of us believe our jobs will remain immune, and that automation will augment rather than replace human labor.

But recently, anxiety about automation has increased. Automation is suspected of playing a role in the stagnant wage growth and underemployment that has plagued developed economies for the past half century. Artificial Intelligence also is demonstrating the potential to automate almost every human activity.  

The newest wave of AI-powered automation is less about automating simple physical labor and more about empowering automation with human-like perception, communication and cognition. Studies have found that up to half of existing jobs are at risk for automation within two decades, and it’s possible AI will outperform humans in all work tasks within 45 years.

Still, some “dull and dirty” jobs pose real challenges to automation. Ironically, AI turns out to be better at manipulating abstract symbols, exploring innovative designs, and sensing human emotions than cleaning toilets. Imagine a future dystopia in which we clean toilets while AI writes symphonies, serializes TV shows and crunches numbers to make life’s important decisions.

What can we do as a society if many of us cannot compete with automation for traditional jobs and new job creation fails to keep pace? Small scale experiments in Universal Basic Income are testing it as a viable alternative to a work-based economy. Taxing robots in proportion to the human labor they replace may preserve government revenue and slow its adoption. Congress has banned self-driving trucks, and human oversight is mandated for data-driven criminal sentencing and medical diagnosis.  

Still, there remains the question as to how individuals will reimagine their purpose and identity without work. Automation may force us to rethink the fundamental premises of our economy, laws and ethics as it accelerates wealth concentration, creates vast power imbalances and swiftly outmaneuvers any regulations designed to control it.

We all need to ask and answer these big questions to ensure that an automated world is still one we wish to inhabit. Only in doing so can we determine how to maintain a humanist world in the face of an increasing post-humanist onslaught.

Why are the rich getting richer?


Slices of the economic pie are more lopsided than ever before. According to recent data, the richest 10 percent of American households earn just more than half of all U.S. income. That’s the highest fraction since the federal government started keeping these sorts of records 100 years ago. And the U.S. isn’t the only place where the gap between rich and poor is growing. During the last 40 years, the richest 10 percent gained ground in Canada, Germany and Japan.

So what explains this increase in income inequality across rich countries? Economists most often point to technological changes that have made the most talented workers ever more productive. As an example, consider that the only way to listen to professional musicians at the turn of the 20th century was to go to a live performance. The most talented performers played in the largest venues and, therefore, made more money than their less-talented peers, but the difference would have been relatively modest.

Today, most of us listen to recorded music. And because an iTunes download costs the same whether it’s recorded by the top artist in a genre or by someone less popular, the most-talented performers now capture a much larger share of our entertainment dollars. Thousands of musicians still are scratching out a living, but technology has increased the gap between the most-talented and the slightly less-talented. Something similar has happened in most industries.

To understand what, if anything, can be done to reduce income inequality, it helps to look back to the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when income inequality actually decreased. That's because the supply of highly skilled workers increased more rapidly than the demand for their services, keeping their incomes — and income inequality — in check. This increase in supply was due to an increase in college graduates and women entering the workforce. Unfortunately, both of those trends have leveled off since about 1980.

If there’s one area where there’s still low-hanging fruit, it’s immigration. Immigrants create about half of all successful startups, but we make it hard for highly skilled immigrants to live and work in the U.S. Increasing the cap on the number of visas issued to highly skilled immigrants each year — or removing the cap entirely — would increase the supply of top talent, reducing income inequality.