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Techonomy NYC: Automated Workplace Brings Promise and Peril

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang promises to give every American adult a monthly $1,000 check. (Photo: Rebecca Greenfield)

The consequences of artificial intelligence and automation in the workforce loomed over much of Techonomy NYC last week, as both a boon and a threat to workers.

Some speakers struck a grave tone about the dislocations to come. “The market will value human labor less and less over time,” predicted Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, a national entrepreneurship program, and author of The War on Normal People, a new book about the automation of labor. He believes that a third of American workers are at risk of permanently losing their jobs to automation in the next 12 years.

Yang thinks the best solution is Universal Basic Income (UBI), a form of social security that guarantees all citizens a living wage from the government regardless of whether or how they choose to work. He is currently running for President as a Democrat in 2020 with a campaign promise to give every American adult a monthly $1,000 check, which he calls the “freedom dividend.” He sees this policy as superior to government-led workforce development efforts, which he says are often ineffective.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes also wants to “create an income floor for all Americans.” In an interview with Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick, he argued that the internet giants should support this by paying a “data dividend” to their users. This idea, which was also proposed by Jaron Lanier at Techonomy 2014, aims for redistribution of the massive profits that companies like Facebook and Google are generating from the data provided by their users.

Other speakers focused more on education as a key to protecting Americans from automation. Microsoft President Brad Smith spoke of the need to improve computer science education at the secondary school level, pointing out that less than 20 percent of American high schools offer Advanced Placement courses in computer science. Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, talked about his work to expand the library’s role as an education provider in the communities it serves.

Some pointed out that automation will be good for many workers too. In the Spring 2018 edition of Techonomy Magazine, Accenture’s Paul Daugherty and James Wilson wrote about an “emerging symbiosis between man and machine” that will “usher in entirely new types of jobs and innovative ways of doing business.” They envision a future in which machines take on the most repetitive and routine cases, but humans still do the most complex and creative work.

Eric Colson, chief algorithms officer at Stitch Fix, shared examples from his own company of exactly this kind of symbiosis. The online fashion retailer uses algorithms to generate fashion ideas, but the company’s 3400 stylists almost always refine and tweak the outputs. He says this process results in winning styles, and also increases job satisfaction for the designers, who “feel freed to focus on the more creative aspects of the job.”

Clearly, automation poses opportunities and risks, for workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some will be automated out of a job. Others will be augmented in ways that complement or supercharge their core skills. The challenge for government and business will be to keep the economy stable enough to support continued technological progress and manage a challenging transition. This means enabling and encouraging the winners, but also protecting the losers, as people and computers work both together and apart in all kinds of new ways.

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