What’s the tech industry’s responsibility in an era of robotics-driven unemployment?

James Barrood of the New Jersey Tech Council.

The mainstream media has grown increasingly concerned about robotics and its potential impact on employment. As is often the case, there’s some hype at work: maybe a bit too much willingness to believe marketing materials, perhaps a bit of conflation with other technological advances. But the broader point is largely legitimate. In the coming years, at a pace that we can’t accurately predict, many millions of the remaining jobs that don’t require advanced education will disappear.

Already, factories run with far fewer people than they once did, and they are moving inexorably toward lights-out operation. Unexpected business pressures — spiking tariffs or minimum wages, growing customer demands, natural cyclical economic downturns — will force business owners toward greater automation. Once they get it working, they won’t rip it out to hire more humans.

Excluding Amazon’s immense warehouses and Whole Foods workforces (themselves subject to relentless automation), most “great companies” of our era run with far fewer employees than they once did. Even remarkable platform/ecosystem companies like Amazon and Facebook rarely throw off as many “good” middle-class jobs as, say, GM and Ford once did via aftermarket products, repair and so forth.

Here in the tech industries, robotics and machine learning are quintessential “interesting problems.” They’re intellectually exciting, and attract immense amounts of capital. Put bluntly, we’re the tip of the spear in accelerating technological unemployment. And, while broader societal and economic factors are absolutely at play, it’s now fair to say that much of what we do tends to accelerate oft-noted trends towards greater inequality, with a small number of winners and many more losers.

We tend to assume that free markets will solve the problem by creating new jobs we can’t even imagine yet. But, as Axios recently pointed out, it took 60 years for U.S. wages to recover after the first industrial-age automation kicked in around 1810. This was in an era in which the American economy grew rapidly and America moved towards greater prominence in the world economy. The winds were at our backs then. They aren’t now. And we don’t have that kind of time.

Not all will agree, but my view is that this gives us a special responsibility to help find and implement solutions. We have a lot at stake, even if we view the matter purely instrumentally.

Our companies depend mightily on open societies that welcome great ideas from anywhere. Most of us want to live in a reasonably humane and tolerant society, even if we differ on the details. But the perception of a radically unfair economy rigged against non-elites drives resentment and anger that makes this impossible.

You’ll sometimes hear the argument: “OK, this is coming, we need to solve it and the solution is a Universal Basic Income.” The government should simply hand everyone enough money to get by. This may indeed prove the best solution, but most cost estimates for UBI are staggering. Who’ll pay?

If that money comes from the bottom or middle of the economy, you’ve largely defeated the purpose. If it comes from the top, you’re talking about massive redistribution. The top income tax rate during the Eisenhower administration was roughly 90 percent. Is that what it will take? Perhaps, but where’s the political coalition for that?

Finding fulfilling work for newly-unemployed long-haul truck drivers or fast food workers has tended not to be the “interesting problem” for most of us. We leave that to folks we sometimes reflexively view as slow, uncreative and generally unimpressive, aka the government. But, after 40 years, workable and scalable solutions that don’t involve collective public action seem rare. So, this attitude seems unhelpful.

Simply stated: We’re helping to create the problem. Whether through private or public means, or a combination of both, we need to get equally serious about helping to solve it. That starts with serious dialogue. One great venue for that conversation will be the Tech+Society Panel at the New Jersey Tech Council’s annual meeting on Wednesday, July 18. I hope to see you there.

James Barrood is the CEO and president of the New Jersey Tech Council.