Regulating Robots

Queen Elizabeth I refused to approve a patent for a machine that could make silk stockings. “I have too much love for my poor people who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting to give my money to forward an invention that will tend to their ruin by depriving them of employment and thus making them beggars,” she said. William Lee, the inventor of the machine, kept working on his machine and by the 1800s machine-knitted stockings were commonplace — in spite of protests by workers.

Bill Gates, recognizing that automation was threatening human jobs, proposed taxing robots. The revenue generated from the tax could be used to fund programs that help workers develop new skills for jobs that aren’t easily automated, he suggested. The tax could make automation slightly less attractive for businesses, potentially slowing down the pace of job displacement. A robot tax could even provide financial resources for social safety nets to mitigate the problems caused by job loss.

More recently, Rep. Mark Takano and Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, which would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32, and lower the limits for overtime pay. “The financial gains from the major advancements in artificial intelligence, automation and new technology must benefit the working class, not just corporate CEOs and wealthy stockholders on Wall Street. It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life. It is time for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay,” Sanders said, making it clear that he’s talking about robots and other kinds of workplace automation.

Over the centuries, people in positions of power have tried to come up with ways to control robots and protect humans workers from the prospect of automation overtaking human workers and eliminating jobs.

Protecting jobs

Queen Elizabeth just held off the end of the hand knitting industry. There are just 4,000 hand knitters working in the U.S. now. Hardly anyone wears hand-knitted stockings, silk or otherwise.

Robots are not taxed. And hardly anyone is seriously proposing that any kind of regulation that would lessen the progress of automation should be considered.

At this point, solutions to the potential end of human jobs are all coming from the other side: that is, like the 32-hour workweek, they are intended to help people whose jobs are threatened by automation to cope with their job loss, not to reduce the number of jobs lost.

Universal basic income is one possible solution. When the robots take over all the jobs, UBI could provide all citizens with a base income to address potential widespread job losses.

Innovating jobs?

In the past, automation in particular and technological innovation in general has increased the number of possible jobs rather than decreased them. Some jobs — from elevator operators to buggy whip makers — are gone, but many more new jobs have arisen.

The result of automation so far has not been job loss so much as job disruption. Individuals lose their jobs and have to retrain or readjust, but the total number of available jobs doesn’t decrease.

How can leaders help their nations cope with the disruption? The World Economic Forum proposed education that focuses on the “four Cs of twenty-first century learning”: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

Economist Thomas Friedman agrees, while adding that excellent infrastructure is also a must. He calls for specific kinds of attitudes as well, and those may not be something world leaders can bring about.

But we might find it comforting that leaders since Elizabeth I have been trying to balance humans and robots. Eventually, we’ll figure it out.


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