A revolution is coming to America and the world, and it's threatening workers' livelihoods, warn big tech moguls and politicians.
It's an automation apocalypse of sorts, some say, and the trend could plunge many of today's workers into poverty and even homelessness in the near future.
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Humans in a wide range of industries could be rendered useless or inadequate in their fields. Telemarketers, bookkeepers, receptionists, delivery workers, customer support specialists, retail salespeople, cashiers, tax preparers, sports referees, machine operators, truckers, taxi drivers, fast-food cooks and warehouse and factory workers are at exceptional risk of being replaced.
Welcome to the Artificial Intelligence revolution, where robots and cutting-edge technology could render traditional American jobs obsolete, forcing workers to adapt their roles or lose their jobs altogether.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the ability of machines to mimic the human mind. The ultimate goal is to create robots that can think like humans. And advances in this technology are happening at breakneck speed.
So what happens if widespread automation means a significant portion of the nation's workforce is left unemployed?
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Americans will need a guaranteed source of income, say tech industry leaders, many of whom are advocating for a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, a plan to give all citizens a sum of money regardless of their employment status. The idea is quickly gaining traction across America and around the world.
AI and the 'danger of income inequality'
In a recent interview with CNN, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson explained why he believes many Americans will rely on cash stipends to prevent them from becoming homeless when the AI revolution is in full force.
"I think with the coming on of AI and other things, there is certainly a danger of income inequality," Branson explained.
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That inequality, he said, will be caused by "the amount of jobs [artificial intelligence] is going to take away and so on." Branson said "there is no question" that new technology will eliminate American jobs. He warned that "basic minimum earnings," or UBI, should be developed "so that there is nobody that is having to sleep on the street."
"One-hundred percent," Branson said of UBI as a solution for this possibility. "I think that is really important."
A 2013 Oxford University study "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization" supports Branson's theory. Researchers estimate a full 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be replaced by robots and AI technologies in the next 10 to 20 years.
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Other high-profile UBI advocates include Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, billionaire SpaceX and Tesla chief Elon Musk and former Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and candidate Bernie Sanders.
Most recently, Hughes proposed that every American who makes less than $50,000 a year be given a $500 monthly check. Hughes said the plan could help combat growing income inequality in the U.S. due to automation and job outsourcing. UBI, he argues, could help stabilize America's middle class.
"For the past 20 or 30 years, work has become increasingly unreliable," he explained. "You might be able to find a job, but it's unlikely that it provides a reliable income, benefits, vacation days or sick leave."
Likewise, Elon Musk says UBI is an economic solution to job losses incurred through automation.
"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC in late 2016. "Yeah, I'm not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."
Andrew Yang, a dark-horse candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2020, has made UBI a cornerstone of his bid for the White House. As WND reported, even some conservative organizations and candidates may be embracing the concept as a method they believe could dismantle a welfare state.
Yang's forthcoming book, "The War on Normal People: The Truth about America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future," explains: "Rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and automation software are making millions of Americans' livelihoods irrelevant. The consequences of these trends are already being felt across our communities in the form of political unrest, drug use, and other social ills."
He cites a 2017 McKinsey study that calculates as many as 70 million American jobs will disappear by 2020 – taken over by robots and automation.
"All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society," the former tech executive says. "That one innovation will be enough to create riots in the street. And we're about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms."
AI revolution: Will your job be replaced?
In 2018, Americans have already witnessed the transformation of industrial manufacturing with new AI technologies. Robots are slashing manufacturing costs and multiplying return on investment. They're building cars and performing jobs that may be dangerous for human workers. Manufacturers are seeking a better educated, highly skilled workforce as robots take over basic tasks traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers.
Now AI is being used to streamline food production and restaurant kitchen labor, particularly in light of the coming $15 minimum wage in many locations. In Silicon Valley, Momentum Machines, a group of "foodies and engineers with decades of robotic and restaurant experience," created an entirely automated restaurant system that's capable of cooking and assembling up to 400 hamburgers in an hour. And MIT students have launched Spyce Kitchen, a robotic system that can cook and serve more complicated meals such as winter veggie mac and cheese or chicken-bacon sweet potato hash. Robotic Kitchen, by Moley Robotics, uses robot arms to simulate a chef preparing a meal. In 2016, robotic arms prepared bratwurst in Berlin:
AI robots are driving cars without human help. They're also replacing humans as insurance claim workers in Japan, where they scan hospital records and determine payouts for Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance. Machines are trading stocks and performing basic accounting functions. They're serving in human resources roles and in health-care industry positions.
Robots clean up nuclear disaster sites, such as the one at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. They also work in construction, completing jobs more quickly and efficiently than average human workers.
Even in higher education, traditional business models are being replaced by online learning. And at Georgia Tech last year, a computer science professor built an AI teaching assistant to deal with routine questions from his students. A British education expert has even gone so far as to predict robots will replace teachers by the year 2027.
AI could also replace some lawyers one day, if Silicon Valley startup Atrium's vision materializes. The firm has put together a team with the goal to "disrupt the legal industry" with new technological innovations.
'We're all going to be cyborgs': Biggest AI trends of the future
In 2015, Tech Insider asked 18 AI researchers, roboticists and computer scientists what they believe will be the biggest artificial intelligence changes of the future.
"I really think in the future we are all going to be cyborgs," said Shimon Whiteson, associate professor at the Informatics Institute at the University of Amsterdam. "... I think the human and the computer are really, really quickly becoming one tightly coupled cognitive unit."
Whiteson said humans could be far more productive if they had brains with perfect memories and were able to make perfect calculations. However, he said AI tech could bring about the problem of hackers invading human brains.
Thomas Dietterich, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, said AI can turn average humans into superhumans.
"Future systems may work via augmented reality of by giving us sensory abilities far beyond existing vision, hearing and manipulation," Dietterich explained. "For example, I hope that exoskeletons will allow me to walk when I am old and feeble. I hope that I can retain my sense of hearing and sight even as my eyes and ears fail."
Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, says "the sky is the limit" to where AI can take the world.
"All these things that we've contemplated, whether it's space travel or solutions to diseases that plague us, Ebola virus, all of these things would be a lot more tractable if the machines are trying to solve these problems," he said.
Others believe AI will help humans predict the future, transform how they connect with other humans, improve the lives of elderly people, advance medical care and expand access to the internet.
Bart Selman, a Cornell University computer scientist, acknowledged that robots will take over many jobs. But he said, "Society will have to adapt."
"How we will adapt is not fully clear yet," he said. "But I think it's something we'll have to think about."
AI apocalypse? Not so fast!
Despite all of the emerging technologies, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates isn't so quick to assume AI will bring an apocalyptic-type scenario to America's workforce.
"AI can be our friend," Gates said at Hunter College in New York City on Feb. 16.
Gates was asked, "What do you think will happen to human civilization with further development of AI technology?"
"AI is just the latest in technologies that allow us to produce a lot more goods and services with less labor," he said. "And overwhelmingly, over the last several hundred years, that has been great for society."
As evidence that AI has been hugely beneficial, Gates pointed to the agricultural industry.
"We used to have to go out and farm," he said. "We barely got enough food. When the weather was bad, people would starve. Now, through better seeds, fertilizer, lots of things, most people are not farmers. And so AI will bring us immense new productivity."
Gates said when new technologies boost productivity in some areas of the workforce, any displaced American workers can adjust to alleviate labor gaps in fields such as elder care, teaching and support for special needs children. And workers may also see shorter workdays, he said.
"This extra productivity is a very, very good thing used in an enlightened way," Gates said. "Someday we will even get to the point where we can say, 'Hey, people don't have to work super long hours. They can have periods of their life [when] they don't work as much."
Gates has even proposed a plan where the government taxes companies that replace their human workers with AI machines. That revenue would then be used to fund job training and employment for displaced workers.
While Gates doesn't oppose the UBI concept, he believes now isn't the time to begin implementing it. He said he's concerned that many countries simply can't afford a lasting UBI program now.
"Even the U.S. isn't rich enough to allow people not to work," he said last year. "Some day we will be, but until then, things like Earned Income Tax Credit will help increase the demand for labor."
Cities and countries experiment with UBI
Several nations have begun testing the UBI concept with citizens. In January 2017, Finland began giving 2,000 randomly chosen citizens $587 in tax-free income every month for two years. India has proposed UBI as a way to alleviate problems with job loss due to automation increases. In Canada, political leaders in four different parties have supported UBI.
Other UBI schemes are being tested in places such as rural Kenya, Glasgow, Barcelona. As WND recently reported, the mayor of Stockton, California, is now leading an experiment to provide low-income residents with $500 a month, no questions asked. Stockton hopes to find that the city gets more economic stimulus by giving money to its citizens rather than corporations it hopes will bring in jobs and tax revenue.
But what happens when workers no longer have to earn a living and they lose their incentive to find a job and actually work?
This is a concern of former Vice President Joe Biden, who rejects the UBI concept.
Biden said his father taught him that working hard at a job is "about your dignity. It's about your self-respect. It's about your place in your community."
"The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached," Biden wrote in a blog post on the subject. "I believe there is a better way forward. I believe we can – we must – build a future that puts work first."
Biden said he appreciates concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their tech innovations could do to American workers' incomes, but he believes they're selling American workers short.
"The future will not change the enduring American values that got us here," he wrote. "Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we've had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work."
Can UBI really work, or is it 'anti-work'?
The left-leaning Roosevelt Institute released a study last August that found UBI could permanently expand the U.S. economy by trillions of dollars, and it would be funded by growing the federal debt.
"They find that enacting any of these policies by growing the federal debt — that is, without raising taxes to pay for it — would substantially grow the economy," Vox.com reported. "The effect fades away within eight years, but GDP is left permanently higher. The big, $12,000 per year per adult policy, they find, would permanently grow the economy by 12.56 to 13.10 percent — or about $2.5 trillion come 2025. It would also, they find, increase the percentage of Americans with jobs by about 2 percent, and expand the labor force to the tune of 4.5 to 4.7 million people."
The large-scale income redistribution plan would stimulate the U.S. economy, the Roosevelt Institute researchers argue, because Americans with low incomes are far more likely to spend money in the short term than wealthy people are.
But Paul Winfree, director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Studies at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, has called UBI an "anti-work" policy.
"[T] he primary problem in the labor market isn't that economic growth hasn't reached low-income workers, but that people aren't working," Winfree wrote in a 2016 article for the Daily Signal. "A basic income would not eliminate poverty – understood as a household's ability to sustain itself above subsistence without depending on government. Nor would it necessarily increase economic opportunity."
Under the current welfare system, low-wage working parents get financial benefits to supplement their incomes and bring them above federal poverty level. But under a UBI system, Winfree argues, increased government benefits would be given to able-bodied adults who work very little or not at all.
"Compared to the present system, such a policy would significantly increase the rewards of non-work relative to work, accelerating the trend to disengagement from labor and increasing long-term dependence and welfare costs," Winfree warns.
"... Today, we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, driven by computers and other smart machines, which are again increasing the 'size of the economic pie' in a way that is replacing need with want, both in the U.S. and globally," he continued. "... [A]s the relationship between work and need has broken down, there has been a real structural disengagement from work over the last 50 years. Groups of people that once participated in the economy through work are leaving the labor market."
Winfree said statistics show a full 94 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were working in 1964. Today, employment for that group of individuals has fallen to 83 percent, and labor participation for women between 25 and 54 is at its lowest in nearly 25 years.
"The policy challenge is not to find a more equitable way to distribute national income, but rather to support opportunity and a strong civil society through work," he wrote. "This could be achieved by reducing the disincentive to work through reforms of the tax and welfare systems, removing onerous and costly federal regulations that prohibit job creation and innovation in human capital markets, and reducing the burden of government that we pass to each generation through continued deficit financing of consumption."