Editorial: A future shock awaits economy

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Appears in Concord Monitor

The more complex and threatening the problem, the longer it takes for society to recognize and act on it. Take climate change. That danger has long been almost universally recognized but the nation has done little, save for executive action by President Obama, to combat it. Another threat, almost as profound, has received even less attention.

New Hampshire, though it has relatively little manufacturing left, is a leader in the effort to use artificial intelligence and robots to perform work long done by humans. More than a half-dozen companies are making robots and teaching them do ever more complex tasks.

Among them are Adept Mobile Robots in Amherst, Dean Kamen’s DEKA research in Manchester and VGo communications in Nashua. Their efforts are progressing far faster than experts predicted. Obama even mentioned the phenomenon in a long interview with New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin.

“Those robots were pretty impressive, but (they) also pointed to the direction the economy is going,” Obama said after a tour of a high-tech lithium-ion battery manufacturer.

Robots rarely break down, need no benefits and work 24/7 for nothing. In a report to Congress earlier this year, the White House predicted that 83 percent of the workers who earned less than $20 per hour in 2010 will lose their job to a machine. More skilled employees, loan officers, lawyers, journalists, X-ray readers and more also face robot replacement.

Self-driving vehicles will eliminate millions of taxi, Uber and truck drivers. The number of bank tellers initially failed to drop as a result of technology because the automation reduced costs so much that banks responded by opening countless branches. But now tellers are disappearing with the growth of electronic banking.

The change, bigger perhaps than the Industrial Revolution, raises economic, social, philosophical and moral questions.

Humans, especially Americans, define and value themselves by work. What happens when there is no job to be had for one-third or half the population? How do the unemployed live without working? In a consumer economy, what happens if tens or hundreds of millions of citizens have no money to spend?

By definition, half of the population is in the bottom half of the bell curve for intelligence, with the average defined as an IQ of 100. There are many kinds of intelligence, so a given number has limited value. But still. Is the bottom half doomed to a life of unemployment and angst about self-worth? How do they participate in society? Will the shift result in hardship and social strife?

Robots are, at least in the short run, expensive, so the shift will make capital more valuable and labor less. So much for closing the income equality gap.

It’s wonderful that New Hampshire is a leader in creating the new technology, but the state and its universities should also be leaders in the effort to respond to what will be an enormous, destabilizing change.

Economists savvy about artificial intelligence and robotics, and the scientists at work in the field, are beginning to agree that one, robots will result in the creation of great wealth with little effort by humans and, two, that wealth will have to be shared for society to function.

The best way to do that is to guarantee every citizen a basic income, one that can be augmented by work. It’s either that or become characters in a Mad Max dystopia.