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Who will own the robots?

“We’re in the midst of a jobs crisis, and rapid advances in AI and other technologies may be one culprit. How can we get better at sharing the wealth that technology creates?” [SOURCE: MIT Technology Review]

At this juncture in the 21st century, we are seeing a phenomenon that is revolutionizing conventional economic thinking. For decades, if not centuries, employment and productivity were roughly aligned. If one rose, so did the other. Now, we are witnessing an unprecedented effect. Productivity is rising as employment is decreasing, and some of the authorities who analyze this data say that one of the primary culprits is technology.

For example, robots are doing more and more sophisticated manufacturing jobs; computer programs that automatically translate languages are usurping those high-value duties; complex computer systems have revolutionized the retail field by tracking sales, inventory, etc. If you examine the patterns of the job absorption of these complex computer programs and technologies, you see that the effects cross over many more career lines than many early pundits had predicted.

Manufacturing, clerical, retail, law, financial services, education and medicine are all fields that more and more are being (and increasingly will be) profoundly affected.

And the sophistication of robotics continues to advance. Hod Lipson of Creative Machines Lab reports, “We are interested in robots that create and are creative.” [SOURCE: MIT Technology Review, v] Prior to Lipson’s demonstration, who could have imagined automating scientific discovery? Lipson has also begun to anticipate that the rapid advances in robotic machines will lead to a huge upheaval in the jobs markets, eliminating some jobs altogether and, at the same time, making huge profits possible for those who own the technologies and the machines.

In some ways, this picture doesn’t differ a great deal from the well-established pattern of producing wealth with wealth, and if already wealthy, also having “servants.” But when the technologies eliminate the income producing potential of broad swaths of the population and, at the same time, place the machines and technologies that replace them in the hands of a few, that is cause for great alarm.

It is clear that society has to develop new ways of thinking about the economics of jobs and re-imagine how we can enable people to prosper in the coming reality.

Even if we believe that somehow it will “all work out in the end,” can we afford to lose one or two generations of workers and create this level of disruption without mitigation?

** Are there r)evolutionary ways to ensure that these advances, which free workers from the routine and repetitive and which boost output, do not take over virtually every aspect of traditional jobs? Are there different, more important, roles for humans to take on other than the traditional employment grind?

In your own community, how can you and others offset the negative impacts and share the benefits of technology?

Share your ideas. Join the conversation with your Comments below. Make a difference.

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