New Jobs for Humans Displaced by Robots Could Take a Generation to Appear

To the Editor:

As the co-editor of a new book on the topic of automation and unemployment, I agree with much of what Andrew McAfee says about higher education’s role in preparing us for a future in which many jobs are done by intelligent machines (“‘Those Jobs Are Gone’,” The Chronicle, April 30). He also makes a good point when he states at the end of the interview that the market and the new technology itself will combine to make new jobs for previously displaced humans. But it is very important to add a big caveat to that: the word “eventually.” We need to distinguish between the dangers of technological unemployment in the short run and in the long run, because they are very different. While I agree that in the long run the process of “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter described will cause new technology to provide more jobs than it destroys, in the short run workers will experience only increasing unemployment and misery. History shows this to be true. In the three industrial revolutions we have had since the 18th century, the process of creative destruction kicked in only after a generation of worker suffering — about 25 years. So we need to have short-run fixes for that kind of interval now. Universal basic income — which Dr. McAfee dislikes — is actually one viable option, as its recent adoption by the country of Finland, some large cities in the Netherlands, and even a segment of Oakland suggest. We also suggest in our book a few others: micro-taxes on large tech companies’ use of our personal data to provide micro-incomes in compensation for its use and the tech companies’ displacement of workers (a precedent established by similar taxes by Alaska on oil companies); a shorter workweek to make room for more workers, which is being tried with great success and with no profit loss by Swedish companies; and even the robot tax on corporations suggested recently by Bill Gates. Without trying such short-term solutions, we stand to face the same violent social unrest that happened during the first generation of the previous industrial revolutions.

Kevin LaGrandeur

Professor of English

New York Institute of Technology

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