Future is Now: How COVID-19 is Propelling Automation and Pushing Us to a World Without Work

What will be the future of employment be like with the world racing toward automation? | Image credit: Reuters

What will be the future of employment be like with the world racing toward automation? | Image credit: Reuters

Daniel Susskind -- a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford University, tells News18 that the coronavirus pandemic has given us a frightening glimpse of the challenges that we are likely to face in the future.

In Meno, Plato wrote about a gifted sculptor, Daedalus, who made such lifelike statues, that they had to be tied up so that they don't run away. This story perturbed his disciple Aristotle a lot as it made him wonder what would happen to human employment if ‘every tool we had could perform its task, either at our bidding or itself perceiving the need'. In 2020, however, this is not a novel prospect. Most tools we own can, in fact, perform tasks on their own, or do them at our bidding. Although, the fear of automata taking our jobs away has become more real than ever.

Earlier this year, Daniel Susskind -- a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford University, who had previously worked in the British government as a policy advisor in the Prime Minister's strategy unit -- addressed the threat of machines replacing human beings, and taking their jobs away in his second book, A World Without Work. Instead of taking an alarmist's approach, Susskind, through his book, examines the possibility of a world in which there may not be enough well-paid work for everyone to do, because of the technological advancements. The book explains how the unavailability of work in the future will challenge social solidarity and amplify an already existing inequality, as more people find themselves unable to make economic contributions to society. A World Without Work received rave reviews and the New York Times prescribed it as required reading for all Presidential candidates. However, at the time Susskind wrote this book, a pandemic was nowhere in sight, and things have changed drastically in the last 8 months since its release.

In a recent interview with News18.com Susskind said, "In the short term, this pandemic has given us a frightening glimpse of the challenges that we are likely to face in the future. We found ourselves in the world with less work, not because robots took all the jobs, but because the coronavirus completely decimated the demand that so many jobs rely upon, and the interventions that were required to contain the virus such as lockdown, social distancing, self-isolation have only made economic matters worse."

"A lot of the challenges I write about in the book, that I thought we would face due to automation in the coming decade, we stand to face right now, because of the virus," he added. Susskind pointed out that although it may seem impossible now, at some point, this pandemic would pass. However, it is likely to have a lasting impact on technology in the long run.

"My sense is that for various reasons, this pandemic might accelerate automation. If you look at the United States labor market particularly, many job losses that happened due to technology in the last few decades, occurred during the recession period. Of course, this pandemic as well is going to be accompanied by a recession. The current health crisis has also created a strong incentive to automate the work that human beings do. A machine cannot fall ill, it cannot pass the virus to co-workers or customers. It doesn't have to isolate itself to protect its peers, so it is far more convenient," he explained.

One of the factors that have impeded rapid automation in the past is the policy interventions that governments around the world adopted to ensure work for their respective population. "In the United Kingdom, for instance, we have the furlough scheme, due to which at one point, about 10 million employees (which was a third of the total number of employees in the UK ) had up to 80 percent of their wages paid by the state. So, there was an obvious incentive for employers to keep these employees working. But, my worry is, as these measures wound down, and in the UK they would wound down in the coming months, there will be an increased incentive to automate the work that human beings do," added Susskind.

Another point that the author makes is that the barriers to automation, until now, were not simply technical (what can be automated) or economic (what is profitable to automate) but also cultural, meaning, what gets automated depended partly on what a certain society or country found palatable and acceptable to automate. However, since this pandemic has forced many to embrace technology in ways that were unimaginable a few months ago, it has had an impact on people's views about technology as well. "There is already polling evidence that shows that people are more comfortable using technology, more supportive of the use of technology in various countries and so when it comes to future and any particular act of automation, given the remarkable use of technology during the pandemic, it seems, that some of those cultural barriers might be lower than they were six months ago," said the author.

"I don't think technological progress is going to take some sort of permanent hit due to the pandemic. The threat of automation is not going anywhere, Once the pandemic passes, it will still be there, and in fact, because of the pandemic, the threat is greater than it was before." Susskind added. Under such circumstances, those entering or already in the job market have a better chance of keeping their jobs in the future, if they are willing to reskill or acquire multiple skills, the author pointed out.

"When I think about the educational challenge, it isn't simply the challenge of what we teach -- in the sense of what skills and capabilities we teach people -- or how we teach like our traditional classrooms look very similar to how they looked hundred years ago. But, it is also an issue of when we teach. There is a huge amount of uncertainty about what skills and capabilities will be valuable in the future partly because the tasks and activities that have to be done in the future are very unclear. So, the best response to that uncertainty is flexibility, the willingness to retrain and reskill later in life, with the same sort of intensity and seriousness, with which we tend to educate ourselves at the start of our lives," said Susskind.

One of the solutions that have been discussed, time and again, for dealing with the increasing technological unemployment is to offer Universal Basic Income (UBI). During the pandemic too, the need for UBI stirred debates among macroeconomists, especially in developing countries, like India, where a large poor population suddenly found themselves without any work.

"I am very supportive of a basic income because the fundamental economic challenge that we would face in a world where there aren't enough jobs for people to do is how do we share our income in society... and basic income is an example of how it can be done. But, what worries me though is the universality. A universal basic income only solves the distribution challenge, it doesn't solve the contribution challenge, " said Susskind.

"The feeling of social solidarity comes from the fact that everybody is making an economic contribution, everyone is working, paying taxes, and there is also an expectation that everyone ought to actively look for work. My worry about a world with less work is how do you maintain that sense of social solidarity if people can't make an economic contribution? The answer is that people will need to make contributions, they might not be economic ones, they might be non-economic ones, like other activities that are valuable and important to society. So, I think what we need is not a Universal Basic Income, but a Conditional Basic Income." he added.

While we talk about the future, job losses due to automation have been happening ever since the industrial revolution. There had been many instances where technology has complimented and aided our work, but there had been those instances too, where men had been replaced by machines. However, despite unemployment, many men prefer not to take up jobs that are predominantly done by women, or jobs for which they are overqualified.

"Some people are willing to remain unemployed in order to protect a particular conception of themselves. For instance, in South Korea, people would rather stay unemployed than do work for which they feel they are overqualified. In the United States, men of working age who are displaced from factory jobs might not want to do pink-collar work (which is a rather unfortunate term), because it is the sort of work that's done by women. They have a particular conception of themselves and they don't want to do that work, because of gender implications." said Susskind.

"One of the optimistic reading from this is that isn't it a great thing that many of the tasks and jobs we currently find hard to automate are predominantly done by women? Another observation from this is that women tend to spend their time in socially valuable work, but isn't rewarded by the market in the form of a wage. And, one of my hopes is that in a world with less work there will be an opportunity to repair the mismatch between so much work that women do, that is so socially valuable, that isn't given a wage in the market, which takes me back to the conditional basic income," he added.

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