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The Raise of the Robotic Revolution

Raising the minimum wage may speed up the process. How do we survive?

With many workers across the nation calling for a minimum wage hike, the inevitable fall-out may be a loss of income altogether.  The old saying, “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.  Almost everyone is replaceable and now, more than ever, people in certain jobs are less likely to be exchanged for other human beings. They are more likely to be replaced with an ultra-capable automated system. It is not just the hourly wage. It is that combined with other benefits that eventually make it fiscally unsound for an employer to keep human workers on the payroll. Doling out dental, medical, sick and vacation pay along with a continually escalating salary may leave both employer and employee empty-pocketed. Investing several thousand dollars on a robotic arm or two, off-setting the need for an employee, may hurt an employer’s bottom line in the short run, but in the long run, it may very well be a financially sensible move. The flip side is that the now jobless worker will not have the means to purchase the goods and services produced by the automated arms.

Neither capping minimum wage nor raising the price of goods and services is the answer. It may be that we are getting closer to requiring a new social contract whereby traditional jobs give way to something else that provides a sustainable and fulfilling existence.  In recent years, much has been written about the robotic revolution, its impacts and potential solutions (see, e.g. Policy Solutions to Technological Unemployment and Legal Strategies for Technological Unemployment) with a revival of the issue following the rise of the minimum wage movement (see, e.g., Increasing Minimum Wage Puts More Jobs at Risk of Automation and New study finds minimum wage hikes lead to job automation). Part of the issue is that while automation keeps improving, the vast majority of the general public is not, likewise, honing its skills. Sophisticated and smart machinery, therefore, is becoming more and more attractive to employers.

But we must find a win-win for both employer and worker. So back to the all-important concern of what do we do, in the near future, with an imaginable jobless workforce that has no or insufficient income for the goods produced and available for purchase? That is a key issue yet to be fully resolved. While there has been discussion of solutions to the open question, not much has evolved on the implementation side of the matter. While experts disagree on the gravity of the situation, it is impossible not to acknowledge the potential for disaster.

Although there is room for disagreement, now is the time for proposed systems and models to be developed, tested and evaluated allowing for suitable, if not seamless, integration if and when necessary. This has been tried with certain recommendations such as the basic income guarantee, in its many formulations (e.g. Finland and Canada), but additional ideas require similar attention. We have science labs and other small-scale testing areas and avenues for many theories and concepts. It is often how we validate things. A similar approach might be employed to test the feasibility of proposed solutions to technological unemployment within a community.

Excluding the ongoing hands-on evaluation of the basic income guarantee, there is too much theorizing going on with regard to other proposals and not enough action.  We can’t risk being caught off guard as to the timing of the great shift in how work is conducted and should actively investigate some of the more feasible concepts before the robots make and eat our supper. There are districts in the United States on the brink of economic collapse and some that have already fallen. Surely, these could serve as testing grounds for concepts introduced and discussed nationally and internationally. In fact, such a move might also help these identified communities emerge from the social devastation that often co-exists with economic desolation. At the end of the day what, besides our supper, do we have to lose trying?

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