Sep 28, 2017 3:00 AM

When AI takes our jobs, only developers stand a chance

AI, robots, and other automation could put most of humanity on the dole as the jobs evaporate. But these careers could keep you comfortably employed

Hanlly Sam/The Accent (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For many years, technology has been doing away with jobs from leech collectors to elevator operators and milkmen to telephone operators. Technology is now threatening jobs from bartenders to your friendly neighborhood postal worker to even your Uber driver. Only a few jobs may escape the coming age of smart automation.

Under the assumption that AI, robots, and other automation poised to make most workers permanently unemployed, some politicians, economists, and techies have proposed that we accept a future with little to no work and provide everyone a regular payment, called universal basic income (UBI)—essentially, an income you're guaranteed whether you have a job or not. In May, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came out in favor of UBI.

This sounds like some kind of hard left nuttery, but it has conservative supporters such as Charles Murray of Bell Curve infamy. After all, if there is work for only a very few, how does everyone else survive?

You might think the notion of a no-employment future is far-fetched, and so UBI is a solution to a problem we won’t have. But if you look at how capital-intensive technology has become and the parallel trends of the inequality of basic education and the inequality in job opportunities while assuming the lower-end jobs will be the most heavily automated, the need for some survival mechanism for the bulk of humanity suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

For years, the answer to a question like "What is your Uber driver going to do once his job is automated" was "something else." But from coal mining to steel to automobiles, we haven't seen that “something else” happen in a lot of places. Another answer was "Move somewhere else," but do we really want to see another major American city go the way of Detroit or Gary, Indiana? And if we are on the verge of an automated future, where could people actually go for those remaining jobs?

There are several notions for how UBI would work:

  • Zuckerberg's vision sounds more like turning the whole populace into a bunch of trust-fund babies who have ready access to education and venture capital. UBI would keep them afloat between their startup efforts.
  • Some economists are talking about paying everyone at the poverty level, so they can subsist. They’re essentially giving up on an possibility for meaningful work, or comfortable lives. Even that low-ball UBI could cost $3 trillion a year.
  • Murray wants to end all social programs to pay (part) of the cost and give you $3,000 a year that must be spent on health care (which proves that Murray has no idea what health care actually costs).

The UBI is substantially different in most plans from existing programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit because you'd receive it regardless of your ability to earn other income. Meaning, I'd be able to make my incredible riches afforded me as an InfoWorld contributor, keep my day job, and still get my $1,000 a month.

Where would the money come from? Ideas include taxes on robots, corporate profits (though who they’ll sell to is an interesting question), and the few working people left.

Even among supporters, the idea is not without concern. Although Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the robots will inevitably replace us all, he also wonders if that plus the UBI will make us feel useless.

And not everyone agrees that automation will ultimately destroy jobs. Instead, it will return us to some kind of feudal serfdom.

This is scary stuff, right? Do we really want a world in which we must live on $12,000 per year with no health care and little prospects for education or work, even as the robots serve our every need (or at least until our $12,000 runs out).

For now, your best bet is to be one of the people doing the automation: Double down on your skills as a software developer, bone up on math and machine learning, and be glad you're still in demand—for now.