The current discussion surrounding the question 'Will robots take our jobs?' has led to a variety of predictions about the future ranging from positively dystopian to well, nothing ever changes really. But technology is not a blind force that determines our future while we stand idly by and watch. When it comes to shaping society, humans are still in the loop.

In the article The Future of Employment, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne calculate that 47% of US employment is at risk of being replaced by automation and computerization. This and other publications have sparked a much needed discussion about the future of jobs and the economy at large in light of the rapid progress of technology.

Robots connected to the Internet of Things giving the internet arms and legs combined with (narrow) artificial intelligence will put all jobs consisting of definable tasks at risk of being automated. Replacing humans with technology.

Nothing changes really

Though few participating in the debate deny certain types of jobs are about to disappear, those skeptical of an immanent technology-driven sea-change argue the impact won't be all that dramatic. Drawing historical comparisons to the first and second industrial revolution when countries transitioned from agricultural societies to industrialized ones, the skeptics point out that although millions of jobs were eradicated in the process, they soon were replaced by different types of jobs resulting from the very technologies that had supplanted the old ones. And so it will happen again, they predict.

But there are two distinct differences between those eras and the contemporary third industrial revolution. The machines replacing labor back then substituted muscle power whereas the ones emerging today replace brainpower. And secondly, back then dedicated machines replaced specific labor, but now we see the rise of all-purpose machines that can replace jobs where ever humans – and later perhaps the machines themselves – can think of a way to apply them

“The agricultural revolution was about specialized technology that couldn’t be implemented in other industries. You couldn’t take the farm machinery and have it go flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology. There isn’t a new place for all these workers to move”, said Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future in a Wired interview.

Who owns the technology?

Those who have dipped into the Culture novels of the late Ian M. Banks already have an idea of what a jobless future can look like. In the sprawling civilization that is the Culture manufacturing consists of autonomous processes while the dreary task of organizing society is mostly taken care of by Minds (they resent the term artificial intelligence) whose intellectual capacities vastly exceed those of humans. Money is an exotic concept the Culture people have a hard time getting their head around because everybody can have and do what they want without having to provide something in exchange.

Crucial to this picture is equality. Whether because of overabundance or choice, in the Culture the wealth produced by technology is available to all equally.

This is hardly the case on present day earth where 1% of the world's population holds 48% of its wealth. And the wealth gap has only been increasing over the last decades.

The dystopian vision is that a happy few will own the technology and extract wealth from it. Consider a small elite or company being the only one with access to artificial general intelligence, it would have a tremendous advantage over the rest of the human race. We could be heading for an age of neo-feudalism where a few feast on the riches while the majority struggles at a subsistence level.

Shaping the future

No need to cower in the face of such an abhorrent prospect just yet. Technology is not an external force breaking in on our evolutionary process, rather it is inherent to human existence and takes shape through our collective actions and decisions. The best approach to the changes ahead, therefore, is to start addressing them now.

One way is through education, not only by teaching skills and critical thinking that make people more adaptable to the fast-paced computerized economy, but also by making continuous learning more available and better affordable.

Another is to create an environment in which the opportunities of emerging technologies can be seized. Investments in physical infrastructure and removing legal and regulatory barriers clear the path for entrepreneurs and innovators.

Perhaps a more fundamental approach is to start rethinking the way society and the economy are organized. If jobs disappear without being replaced by new ones, the entire economy will be affected. When a critical mass loses its means to earn money, there will be less people to buy stuff. Decreasing demand will cause the economy to shrink.

More importantly if people are deprived of a means to make a living they will stand up and do something about it, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the book The Second Machine Age argue. If they live in a functional democracy they well vote for changing the way wealth is distributed. And if the democratic process is rigged in favor of the wealthy it will ultimately end in revolt.

“Once many, even most, people see their income from labor recede, their views on the ownership of capital and the distribution of its proceeds, as expressed through votes or revolts, will matter even more than they do now”, they wrote in an article (paywall) for the Foreign Affairs special Hi Robot.

To stave of a revolt several thinkers have proposed to loosen or even sever the link between work and income and consider alternative arrangements to distribute wealth. Martin Ford suggests transitioning to a basic income system that guarantees everybody a minimum income.

Nicolas Colin and Bruno Palier advocate a social policy that decouples the ability to meet one's basic needs from having a job: “If the government can guarantee citizens access to health care, housing, education and training, and the like on a universal basis without regard to their employment status, the argument runs, people won't be so terrified of switching jobs or losing a job. This, in turn, would allow government to deregulate labor markets, leaving decisions about hiring and firing of employees to be made by firms themselves, according to economic logic. The result is greater efficiency, dynamism, and productivity, all build around workers' needs rather than on their backs”, they state in their contribution (paywall) to the Foreign Affairs Hi Robot edition.

We can only speculate what the impact of the rise of the robots will be, but technology does not evolve in a void. The robot discussion invites us to contemplate what we want from our technology. We cannot predict the future but we can formulate the kind of future we aspire to.