Many believe the future of computing and robotics is a threat to human enterprise. Because computers and machines can do certain kinds of jobs faster, more cheaply and more efficiently compared to human workers, the natural tendency will be for business to gravitate towards replacing employees with machines and lower the curtain on employment.


It has been suggested that a program called Universal Basic Income (UBI) could replace employment and provide individuals with money to live on in the absence of future jobs or business from which they can collect a regular paycheck.

Such a program would be administered by either national or local governments, and would create an alternative means of support for anyone affected by the encroachment of automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI) into the labor markets.


While universal basic income sounds like a simple solution, the truth is economic transitions are rarely simple and can be more expensive than estimates predict.

The development and effectiveness of AI, automated systems and robotics are difficult to predict with any accuracy, and it isn’t yet clear how any of these technologies will truly affect business or employment.

As with most things, it won’t be as bad as some predict, nor will it be as good as some predict either.

Ironically enough, the foundations for theoretical mass unemployment were laid when Henry Ford and other industrialists invented mass production. Much of the “full employment” prosperity experienced by American families during the 20th century was provided by factories and related businesses built around technologies like the assembly line.

Those same factories are the ones likeliest to become automated and are also the likeliest to build the machines that will provide for themselves and many other businesses.

There is an often misquoted anecdote from the 1950’s involving Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers union. While on a visit at the newly-opened Ford engine plant, Reuther was asked “how are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?” not by Ford himself but by a slightly cheeky member of the management team.

Illustrating one of the key problems of technological unemployment from automation, Ruether shot back with “You know, that is not what’s bothering me. I’m troubled by the problem of how to sell automobiles to these machines.

From a purely theoretical standpoint, any task that can be reduced to a cycle can be automated. The assembly line is the practical demonstration of this theory. It produces many copies of the same product using the same series of steps and the same combinations of raw materials.

Automation theory holds that from any such model will inevitably come greater and greater efficiency until the workers themselves are removed from the factory floor and replaced by machines.

The same is true of many calculation tasks. The process of preparing a balance sheet, for example, or producing a profit and loss statement based on a particular set of general ledger entries are tasks no longer performed by accountants, but by machines, largely because balance sheets and profit and loss statements are always drafted using the same principles and data.


What society wants to avoid, naturally, is a world where all prospective employers are vertical businesses with no dependencies, no employees and no limitations on their reach. Society is filled with people reliant on a universal basic income and lacking the purpose and fulfilment that a rewarding career can bring.

The theory would hold that in such a situation, there would be no demand for human skill, since anything a man or woman can do a machine can do better, faster and cheaper.

The concurrent problem is the “runaway AI” panic, where an AI learns how to teach itself and grows exponentially more powerful until something unfortunate happens.

“The transition from horses to cars and then to aircraft produced immense displacement of both skills and economic infrastructure, yet not only did human civilization recover, but it became more prosperous within a single generation.”

These kinds of imponderables used to be limited to science fiction, but because of the advent of more powerful computers and mobile devices, they are now high on society’s priority list.

The fundamental problem with such scenarios is human civilization has already experienced the kinds of transitions automated systems, AI and robotics will bring. The transition from horses to cars and then to aircraft produced immense displacement of both skills and economic infrastructure, yet not only did human civilization recover, but it became more prosperous within a single generation.


What futurists and economists alike often overlook in their analysis of how automated systems will affect the future of employment is the power of entrepreneurs. The dystopian image of all of humanity sidelined by machines and living off a universal basic income presumes the only economic entities that will employ automated mechanisms, artificial intelligence or robots in their businesses are large corporations or large employers.

What is far more likely to happen is that robots in particular will become the tool of choice for forward-thinking business-people who will recognize the multiplicative economic power in automated assistants.

While this may or may not hold true for artificial intelligence, automated systems long ago changed small business for the better. Some fine examples are technologies like voice mail, voice activated transcription software, PC accounting packages, electronic commerce shopping carts and even the humble QR code.

When viewed from this standpoint, it becomes much easier to see that the simultaneous advent of industrial-era advances like mass production, mass media and mass marketing were destined to give way to information-era advances like micro-manufacturing, search engines and social media.

The search engine in particular dealt the death blow to mass media. Back in the 1970s, audiences in the tens of millions tuned in to get their news and entertianment from a very limited source.

Today, it is almost impossible to attract an audience of more than ten million absent an apex event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl.

“The search engine in particular dealt the death blow to mass media. Back in the 1970s, audiences in the tens of millions tuned in to get their news and entertainment from a very limited source.”


The Universal Basic Income fits into the information-era future, but it is more likely to be accepted in the form of an incentive to start a small business rather than a handout to people who are involuntarily excluded from gainful employment.

Meanwhile, it is likely the vertical artificially intelligent corporation that owns all it surveys will be curtailed by some kind of pro-competitive government regulatory framework much like the Financial Syndication Rules that used to govern network television.


Prior to the mid-1990s, networks were not able to own television stations or production companies, as a network would have too much market influence. In the future, it is not only possible but likely corporations beyond a certain size will be required to “hire” automation from others rather than owning robots or automated systems of their own. This will allow corporations to benefit from new technologies without giving them the means of walling themselves off from the rest of the economy with a secure autonomy. 


The original concept of “climbing the corporate ladder” is still possible as automated processes permeate the business world. You want to keep your job, but a promotion might be your next goal. Consider the world of management.

Executives will be needed for management as it pertains to automated devices and machines. Going back to school for management skills is a clever way to make your mark in this profession. As noted with the change from low-income to high-income jobs, it makes sense that more executive positions will open up in the future. Those machines still need human-driven management, from scheduling maintenance to dealing with unexpected downtime.

The future is unknown and a universal basic income of some kind may well be a reality. However, it’s effectiveness or even what people will most commonly use it for is still yet to be revealed. 



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