Emerging technologies, such as industrial robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, are advancing at a rapid pace. These developments can improve the speed, quality, and cost of goods and services, but they also displace large numbers of workers. This possibility challenges the traditional benefits model of tying health care and retirement savings to jobs. In an economy that employs dramatically fewer workers, we need to think about how to deliver benefits to displaced workers. If automation makes jobs less secure in the future, there needs to be a way to deliver benefits outside of employment. “Flexicurity,” or flexible security, is one idea for providing health care, education, and housing assistance, whether or not someone is formally employed. In addition, activity accounts can finance lifelong education and worker retraining. No matter how people choose to spend time, there needs to be ways for people to live fulfilling lives even if society needs fewer workers.
The list of new technologies grows every day. Robots, Augmented Reality, algorithms, and machine-to-machine communications help people with a range of different tasks.(1) These technologies are broad-based in their scope and significant in their ability to transform existing businesses and personal lives. They have the potential to ease people’s lives and improve their personal and business dealings.(2) Technology is becoming much more sophisticated and this is having a substantial impact on the workforce.(3)
In this paper, I explore the impact of robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning on the workforce and public policy. If society needs fewer workers due to automation and robotics, and many social benefits are delivered through jobs, how are people outside the workforce for a lengthy period of time going to get health care and pensions? These are profound questions for public policy and we need to figure out how to deliver social benefits in the new digital economy.
Industrial robots are expanding in magnitude around the developed world. In 2013, for example, there were an estimated 1.2 million robots in use. This total rose to around 1.5 million in 2014 and is projected to increase to about 1.9 million in 2017.(4) Japan has the largest number with 306,700, followed by North America (237,400), China (182,300), South Korea (175,600), and Germany (175,200). Overall, robotics is expected to rise from a $15-billion sector now to $67 billion by 2025.(5)
According to an RBC Global Asset Management study, the costs of robots and automation have fallen substantially. It used to be that the “high costs of industrial robots restricted their use to few high-wage industries like the auto industry. However, in recent years, the average costs of robots have fallen, and in a number of key industries in Asia, the cost of robots and the unit costs of low-wage labor are converging… Robots now represent a viable alternative to labor.”(6)