What will society do for the people whose jobs are taken by robots?

Automation is currently more of a technical problem—but solving it will prompt serious social upheaval. Are we ready?

A robot server recently introduced at a restaurant in Shenyang, China

A robot server recently introduced at a restaurant in Shenyang, China. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty)

In my previous post, I looked at how everything old is new again in regards to fears about automation taking human jobs. It’s a fear that has existed for decades at least and is now once again in high gear thanks to recent advances in robots and artificial intelligence.

Many robotics and AI experts aren’t too concerned with the long term, believing that machines will ultimately elevate the type of work that humans do. But there does seem to be a consensus building that societies are going to have to do something to manage the pain in the near term.

A large group of workers—mainly those whose work involves routine tasks—will indeed be displaced, so it might be wise to plan for it now.

So says Yoshua Bengio, professor of computer science at the University of Montreal and Canada Research Chair in Statistical Learning Algorithms. He believes we’re currently at the cusp of mechanical transformation—and a societal one as well.

Automation took over jobs during the previous Industrial Revolution, but many of the social program advances that helped ease the pain—unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, student loans and so on—didn’t come into existence until much later.

“If we had known in the 19th century how the Industrial Revolution would unfold, we could have prevented a lot of misery,” he says. “I think something similar is on the horizon here.”

It’s vital that such discussions begin now, he adds. Topics such as guaranteed basic incomes, data privacy rules and the ethical uses of technology such as military robots are all outgrowths of this latest wave of automation.

A number of Canadian provinces are starting to look at basic income, while some countries are notably ahead. Finland, for one, is discussing giving every citizen at least 800 euros ($1,157) a month for starters.

“We need to have a reasonable and rational discussion about the short-term and long-term,” Bengio says. “It’s starting to happen, but it needs to expand beyond scientists and philosophers to ordinary people and governments.”

Part of that rational discussion will be the separation of fact from speculation, which might be difficult to do since there’s so much unknown about the future.

Bengio says many of the fears about robots and AI are overblown. Worries about Terminator-like robots turning on people or artificial intelligence far outstripping humanity’s stretch the realities of science.

Still, the angst gets cranked up every time computers do something impressive, like when Google’s AlphaGo recently beat South Korean champion Lee Sedol at the ancient game of Go.

“There’s no reason to believe we’re not going to reach human level intelligence. Beyond human level intelligence, there’s a lot more uncertainty,” Bengio says. “People can replace that unknown with pictures that they have from movies, which can be scary.”