Will farm workers be replaced by robots?

When robots do the work

Everyone talks about job losses caused by robots, but nobody talks about the necessary consequences.

This week, the OECD gave the all-clear in a study: Only every tenth job could be replaced by machines over the next 20 years due to the increasing robotization of the business world (Industry 4.0). Very reassuring, but unfortunately unrealistic because it is too closely related to the current situation. An Oxford study predicts the loss of 47 percent of all jobs over the same period. McKinsey says digitization will sweep away 45 percent of all jobs. Plus another 13 percent when it comes to implementing artificial intelligence.

Of course, all of these numbers are house numbers because no one can reliably predict the future. But given the pace of development - who would have thought self-driving cars in normal traffic five years ago to be realistic? - the reality is likely to stick to the upper limit. And we are moving towards an industrial revolution for the first time, in which jobs that are lost are no longer or only to a very limited extent replaced by new ones. To put it simply: the farrier is no longer becoming a car mechanic, but is being replaced by a largely autonomous machine.

In short, we have to adjust to an economy in which productivity and prosperity continue to grow, but where the focus is on a smaller and smaller segment of the population - the robot owners. This cannot be achieved with today's organization of the economy and society. In its current form, this development leads straight to mass impoverishment, then to the collapse of the economy based on mass consumption and finally to the implosion of the social order.

In view of this scenario, it is surprising that there is still such calm, one could almost say ignorance, among economists and politicians. After all, it is about a foreseeable development that cannot be captured with conventional models. And time horizons of 20 or 30 years are not really long when a society has to be radically restructured.

Private initiatives in particular are currently dealing intensively with the consequences of unstoppable digitization. For example, the Austro-American Bill Price, an economist and former IAEA diplomat, who gathered an impressive panel of experts in his Council for a 21st Century Progressive Economy in Vienna. First of all, a few questions were formulated there that politicians should deal with.

► For example the question about future work organization. It seems certain that the roughly 200-year history of permanent employment is coming to an end. And across the garden, because robotization by no means makes low-skilled human work in industry obsolete. The result is a “freelance economy” in which the boundaries between (currently) paid and (currently) unpaid work are blurring. Are there already any concepts for organizing something like this?

► If almost half of the employees lose their job (in today's sense), we will also be very quick with the financing of the social systems, which is currently based purely on the taxation of human labor. This means that the entire tax and social security system is not future-proof. So we should discuss their conversion. And then we are pretty quick with the taxation of added value (robot tax) or resources. Is there - apart from the current stupid machine control ideology hack-hack - serious discussions about a viable system restructuring for the financing of a civil society (which, by the way, also includes a form of basic income)?

► Then we talk about the education system: If machines capable of learning do ever larger parts of the work in the “white collar” area, so if there is a “decoupling of qualification and productivity”, then the question arises as to whether they are currently exactly this coupling set educational content for the requirements of human work still fit. This discussion will probably take place elsewhere, because in this country educational reforms still revolve primarily around the question of who is allowed to control the teachers' party books.

► Finally, the human-robot relationship is interesting, for which there is currently no legal framework. However, this becomes necessary as soon as artificial intelligence (according to Tesla boss Elon Musk, who is already experimenting with it in his autopilot Teslas, one of the "greatest dangers for mankind") exceeds a certain level.

That all sounds very utopian now. But we will face these problems much faster than we'd like. And then it is no longer enough to run traditional labor market programs, to cement structures in terms of labor law and, for the rest, to bury your head in the sand. Some high-ranking social partner representatives participate in the council. They could do a lot for the country if they could get their organizations to put more political pressure on this issue.

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("Die Presse", print edition, August 12, 2016)