Could robots kill capitalism?
That was one of several questions posed to academics, analysts, and other experts in Pew Research Center’s latest look at how coming advancements in automation and artificial intelligence might impact the labor market.
For the vast majority of the more than 1,400 respondents, the answer was a firm "no." Seven in ten agreed that educational programs would emerge in the next decade to train masses of workers in the types of high-skill jobs needed to run the economy of the future.
Of the 30 percent who weren’t so optimistic about the market’s capacity to prepare job-seekers, a smaller portion went so far as to say the coming wave of displacement might end capitalism itself.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the forward march of technology will eventually lead us to a point at which a good number of today’s jobs will be obsolete. Even professional classes aren’t safe; researchers have already demonstrated that machines can do the work of lawyers, insurance claims adjustors, dermatologists, and reporters, among other things.
What’s less clear is the exact timeline of advancement and the ultimate economic repercussions it will have. The most dire predictions hold that half of all current jobs could be lost within the next decade.
But most of the experts Pew Research talked to don’t seem particularly daunted by the prospect.
Many see a patchwork marketplace of online educational platforms, company employee training programs, and other resources as a way to close the gap between the demand for high-skilled labor and an excess displaced workers.
Some said much of this hypothetical future workforce will be self-taught.
“People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them," said Microsoft principal researcher Jonathan Grudin in a response typical of this set. "Technology is already central. It will undoubtedly play a greater role in the years ahead."
On the other hand, Pew notes that some of the bleakest visions of the future came from the most respected voices in the field.
Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Jason Hong, for instance, doubted that the political willpower or efficient technology exists to train workers on a necessary scale.
He pointed out that free online classes like MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — have had high dropout rates and questionable instructional quality.
"We can train small numbers of individuals (tens of thousands) per year using today’s community colleges and university systems, but probably not more," he said.
One anonymous science editor had a blunter assessment: "Seriously? You’re asking about the workforce of the future? As if there’s going to be one?"
The less gloomy of those not on the education push bandwagon contemplated the idea of an entirely new economic system emerging to replace market capitalism.
"The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs," said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast. "It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work."
The notion of a post-work society isn’t new. The techno-utopian concept of so-called "fully automated luxury communism" has existed in radical-leaning left circles since as far back as the 19th century.
More recently though, sweeping wealth-spreading initiatives have gained currency in some unlikely places. Silicon Valley leaders like Elon Musk, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar have expressed support for efforts to study the feasibility of a universal basic income — a system in which everyone would get a regular stipend from the government with no strings attached.
Some of the Pew survey participants also cited such a program as a way to offset job losses.
"The reality is that, eventually, we just hit [the] limit of average ability and huge percentages of people become effectively unemployable,” said Rick Dudley, who apparently declined to share identifying details.
While others in the skeptical camp didn’t explicitly mention the policy, many did point to growing income inequality as a major impediment in the way of a workable solution.
"The current trend of concentrating wealth in the hands of a diminishing number of ultra-rich individuals is unsustainable," says Tom Sommerville, an IT strategy consultant.
Experts may disagree on the particulars, but there’s no doubt the coming technological revolution will raise all of these questions.