Wait — Robots Work But I Get Paid?
We’re not through the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re probably not even near the end of the beginning yet. That hasn’t stopped many pundits to start speculating about how our society (and our healthcare system) are likely to be permanently changed as a result, such as continued reliance on telecommuting and telemedicine.
OK, I’ll play too: I believe we need to greatly expand the role of robots, and begin something that resembles Universal Basic Income (UBI). They’re not the only changes that may result, but they are two that should.
We’ve been seeing robots infiltrating the workforce for many decades, such as in manufacturing but also in many other industries.
Still, though, as our economy pares down to “essential businesses” during the pandemic, I’ve been alarmed at how many of the jobs remain done by humans. Not just healthcare workers on the front lines but also all those people doing the cleaning for essential businesses, all those people in the supply chain of food and other vital materials, all those people making deliveries, all those first responders, all those people all those people keeping the power on, the water running, and the internet streaming, among others. And so on.
We’re already seeing reports of positive tests for COVID-19 in grocery workers, Amazon employees, meatpacking workers, not to mention first responders and healthcare workers. The trucking industry fears the impact. Garbage collection was already a not very desirable job and carries the risk of COVID-19 infection as well. At some point, we run the risk that we won’t have enough essential workers.
An article last month in Science Robotics noted: “As epidemics escalate, the potential roles of robotics are becoming increasingly clear.” The authors cited four key areas where robots could make a key difference in a pandemic:
- clinical care (e.g., telemedicine and decontamination),
- logistics (e.g., delivery and handling of contaminated waste),
- reconnaissance (e.g., monitoring compliance with voluntary quarantines),
- continuity of work and maintenance of socioeconomic functions
Indeed — but I believe that even those areas do not go nearly far enough. Professor Richard Pak, an automation expert, told The New York Times: “Pre-pandemic, people might have thought we were automating too much. This event is going to push people to think what more should be automated.” AMP Robotics CEO Matanya Horowitz pointed out the obvious advantage of robots: “They can’t get the virus.”
If some jobs are truly “essential,” the current pandemic highlights the risk that there may not be enough people to do them, at least not safely. We should be making every effort to identify if/how more of them could be done by robots. It’d be a big investment to make, but that investment would pale next to the costs of the current shutdown to our economy.
Universal Basic Income
This idea has been floating around for several years, largely by tech futurists worried about what happens when robots do, in fact, take a significant number of our jobs. It was the centerpiece of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, and brought him more ridicule than respect.
Now this idea seems prescient, as job losses soar past the levels of the last Recession and could exceed the joblessness of the Great Depression. No one knows how long the economy will persist in shutdown mode, nor even exactly how we’ll emerge from it. Many experts caution we may never go back to “normal,” especially not until there is a proven vaccine.
State employment programs vary widely in terms of which workers are covered, how much benefits are, or for how long. Those programs have been overwhelmed, both by the huge, sudden increase in volume and by the antiquated systems they use (let’s put it this way: these are the salad days if you happen to know COBOL).
Congress belatedly responded to the employment crisis by throwing money at the problem in three separate bills, each costing more than ten times the prior bill. The bills tried to expand paid sick leave, give loans to businesses that do not lay off their workers, beef up state unemployment benefits, and make direct payments to most Americans (a very limited UBI program!), as well as, of course, providing subsidies to big businesses.
Despite all that, few believe the trillions of dollars are nearly enough, especially if the shutdown continues into or even past this summer. For example, the small business loan program, designed to help small businesses keep their workers, has been beset with problems — neither banks nor small businesses knew what to do — yet is reportedly already running out of money.
Other countries address unemployment by directly subsidizing the majority of workers’ paychecks, thus limiting unemployment and making restarting the economy quicker. It is an idea that has been argued even by some conservative Republicans here. It is much simpler, and more direct, than the various programs Congress has enacted.
When people can’t work, or we don’t want them to work, we should have a uniform national income support system already in place, one that allows people to pay their bills, without them having to jump through a variety of hoops that will end up stymieing too many of them.
Ours is a federal system, which specifically reserves rights to the states, but in times of a national or even regional emergency like a pandemic, it’s crazy that we have to wait until the crises hits, then rely on the federal government to belatedly respond with (borrowed) largesse squeezed through a crazy-quilt of programs.
Some believe the COVID-19 crisis could be the crisis that helps bring about MedicareForAll, but I think the economic crisis it is causing may prove to be an even more powerful impetus to create a federal income entitlement program. We just have to decide if it this should be an true, always-on UBI program (remember those robots!), or one aimed solely at reducing lost employment income.
A year ago — heck, six months ago — each of these were issues that we knew might someday be important, but we thought we had time to think about. We are out of time. It is time for action.
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