The Automation Economy: Where We Are, Where We’re Headed, What We Might Do

Reuters recently reported Chinese company ABB is to open a new facility in which robots will manufacture—wait for it—other robots. This, naturally, might only stoke fears about the threat automation poses to individuals who would have otherwise been performing those jobs.

This isn’t a new concern; there’s been a slow march toward increasingly automated manufacturing processes for decades if not a century now, and the resulting layoffs and labor cutbacks have been the source of much economic anxiety both in the U.S. and abroad.

The continued proliferation of automation seems inevitable, though, doesn’t it? In our constant drive for greater efficiency and convenience, we inch ever further to making ourselves obsolete, or so would argue those most interested in painting as dystopian of a picture imaginable (which, full disclosure, I am for the purposes of this post).

Still, one wonders, too, what might happen if a brain-computer interface like EMPATHY were to ever be widely available to the population at large. With the ability to store memories with lossless quality somewhere in the cloud, to keep a schedule and foist the responsibility for reminders on a remote server somewhere, humankind would surely be keeping with its penchant for greater convenience.

But in this way we’d also be furthering the obsolescence of our own minds, and perhaps the very notion of what it means to be human.

Grim as it might sound, the above scenario is but one possible outcome for a world in which an EMPATHY-like technology actually becomes available. Though there are brain-computer interfaces in various stages of testing and development, we’re likely decades away from any kind of breakthrough that would permit the scenario described above to unfold.

That said, might we not consider what we as a society can do now to prepare for the threat robotic automation poses to our economy and lifestyle before we possibly have to do the same before facing the widespread distribution of a product like EMPATHY?

One proposed solution to overcome the challenges posed by an automation economy is universal basic income (UBI). The idea behind a true UBI is that all individuals of working age receive a minimum income from the government to support basic needs such as shelter, food, and water. UBI systems have already been implemented in Finland, which, though it plans to suspend the disbursement of monthly UBI payments at the end of 2018, intends to do so in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the policy before deciding whether to institute it long term.

As the link above cites, Finland isn’t alone in testing a UBI for its citizens. A handful of cities and towns have put UBI experiments into motion on a smaller scale, and Scotland is considering making moves toward a UBI system while the city of Barcelona already runs a limited test of it for a percentage of its people.

We’re still in the very early stages of testing the efficacy of universal basic income in attacking inequality and minimizing fears of human obsolescence, but the UBI experiment is one worth following as the results of various approaches to its implementation continue to become available.

Where the EMPATHY universe is concerned, it has its own obstacles to overcome where inequality is concerned, a topic I wrote about a few months ago in this post called “Alternative Approaches to Accessibility.”

Ensuring folks have access to widespread, foundational technological advances like the brain-computer interface isn’t especially dissimilar from using UBI to combat increased inequality in the face of other innovation in the realm of technology. That’s not to say, however, that there won’t be resistance to subsidizing EMPATHY technology as there has been resistance to UBI systems designed to provide a safety net for those whose careers might be most affected by automation. In the EMPATHY series, the books’ namesake technology has wide-ranging implications for security, politics, day-to-day life, and socioeconomics.

We’re just beginning to see how well UBI actually fares in attacking inequality due to automation, and in January 2019, we’ll have the chance to see how the sudden introduction of a brain-computer interface technology like EMPATHY will affect a speculative society—and possibly ours one day as well.

Until then, keep your eyes on this blog, my Twitter feed, my Facebook, and Instagram for more. Thanks for reading.

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