Economic experts are trying to figure out a question that just two decades ago seemed ridiculous: If 90 percent of human jobs are replaced by robots in the next 50 years — something now considered plausible — is capitalism still the ideal economic system to champion? No one is certain about the answer, but the question is making everyone nervous — and forcing people to dig deep inside themselves to discover the kind of future they want.
After America beat Russia in the Cold War, most of the world generally considered capitalism to be the hands-down best system on which to base economies and democracies. For decades, few doubted capitalism’s merit, which was made stronger by thriving globalization and a skyrocketing world net worth. In 1989 — when the Berlin Wall fell — the world had only 198 billionaires. Now, according to Forbes, there are 1,826 of them in 2016.
Despite growing riches, when banks collapsed in 2007 during the Great Recession, the world stepped back and wondered aloud if a more nuanced approach to economic progress was needed. These doubts of 21st century capitalism helped set the stage for an economic paradigm shift just starting to appear — economists observing jobs not just disappearing to other countries, but disappearing off the face of the Earth. The culprit: robots and software.
At first, the warnings of this weren’t very loud. After all, economies and companies thrive because of modernization, which includes upgrading with new tech to make and save money. But in the last year, a growing chorus of people are beginning to see a tipping point, maybe a decade in the future, where tens of millions of jobs may be lost in as short as a five-year period — which would be many more times the jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Already today, there are countries trying out driverless trucks to deliver goods. Truck driving is one of the most prevalent jobs in America, with about 3.5 million drivers. What will we do in five years if they are replaced with vehicles that don’t need human intervention to get on and off a highway to deliver goods?
Of course, they are just one occupation amongst many dozens — like waiters, bank tellers and even librarians — that might no longer require humans in the very near future.
Many of us are running on a financial treadmill right now, trying to get ahead and realize the American Dream.
Capitalism says this is the nature of the competitive economy. However, those jobs that are replaced will never be regained, and truck drivers and waiters will not easily find other jobs. Some will likely need to be provided for by the state, otherwise grown men and women will surely pick up Molotov cocktails and show the world a thing or two about worker revolutions.
The only difference between this and other historical revolutions is they won’t be alone. This time it’s not a problem of the rich versus the poor. In 20 years, everyone’s job will be at stake, even that of my wife, who trained 19 years in college to become a practicing Ob/Gyn — and still today has $100,000 in school debt. But machines will deliver babies and remove cervical cancer better than people. And software will do taxes more efficiently than accountants. And articles will be crafted better by news aggregating software than living, breathing journalists.
Everyone, including even the U.S. president, is at risk of being outperformed by a machine — and eventually being jobless and without income.
So, now that we know we’re all going to lose our jobs, what system can make it so humans will still be happy and live better without employment? Clearly, it’s not capitalism.
Whichever system we choose will have to incorporate an improving standard of life for people and society. For this reason, I tend to support a Universal Basic Income as one way to desire robots to take our jobs but not leave the world poor. However, that doesn’t really say what will happen to economies after the robot revolution is really underway.
Some people have said a fully automated luxury communism will prevail once robots take all the jobs — an economic system that favors technology pampering humans all day long. Communism is a historically loaded word that few people like (including myself, a longtime entrepreneur).
Additionally, it insinuates being chained to community and social service, something I think our individualistic-minded world may scoff at. The 21st century has made people feel more entitled than ever, and, frankly, with so much amazing innovation humans have come up with, we deserve it. We deserve to be pampered by technology. We deserve to never again work a day in our lives if we don’t want to. We deserve not to be bothered by government or society if we’re not bothering others. And we deserve to pursue lofty dreams instead struggling to earn a handful of dollars.
In fact, I doubt money will even survive this century. If anything, in the future, only knowledge will have tradable value — the knowledge to create better machines, software and experiences from technology. Around this time — surely before 2075 — the singularity will be possible, a point where people connect themselves to artificial intelligence and essentially disappear into a sea of growing and organizing information. Then it’s anyone’s guess what happens to the world.
However, back to reality here in 2016: Whatever economic system does prevail in the next 25 years, it won’t be like anything we thought of before. Karl Marx and Adam Smith simply did not account for what indefinite robot labor would mean to a new world increasingly reliant on microprocessors and 1s and 0s for its every step forward.
Whatever happens, it’s probably best to keep an open mind about the future and new economic models. Many of us are running on a financial treadmill right now, trying to get ahead and realize the American Dream of riches and the good life. But in the future, the American Dream may be more about discovery of our newly acquired transhuman possibilities and enjoying the technology that has made our modern lives so simple and easy. I think I can get used to that.