The Robots at Labor’s Gate

The World Wide Web debuted 30 years ago. More than half of humanity now has access to surf the internet, up from just 20 percent a decade ago. That’s an amazing transformation.

But the breathless predictions of Silicon Valley’s starry-eyed utopians that the internet would unleash prosperity for all and end inequality have sadly not been realized. In fact, arguably it has widened the world’s chasm between the haves and have-nots.

The problem extends beyond just the internet. Automated technology is about to turn low-skilled workers into a massive underclass. Self-driving vehicles may make Uber’s three million drivers, many of whom went on strike earlier this year to demand a living wage, soon unemployed. Yet this is just a microcosm of the labor turbulence and dislocation to come. Technology has been an enabler of inequality, not shared prosperity as is.

The ultra-rich, large corporations – regardless of their feel-good mottos – have the potential to use their artificial intelligence applications to force out human workers, unless the workforce upgrades and reboots itself.

In a recent study of the U.S. labor market between 1990 and 2007, economists found that automation technologies killed jobs and lowered wages. Specifically, the adoption of one robot eliminated almost six jobs in a community. Blue-collar jobs suffered the most. The growing inequality in earnings between workers with college education and those without it also reflects the demand for high-skilled workers.

The manufacturing jobs that moved from the U.S. to China — think of the factories where iPhones are assembled in former fishing villages like Shenzhen — are vanishing from China, too, due to the growing capability of automation. India once considered its abundant cheap labor as a sure path to growth. Today automation is taking over its manufacturing sector, from chemical plants to construction sites, boosting productivity.

One in eight American workers is vulnerable to automation, the association of high-income countries, OECD, reported in May, sounding an urgent alarm for workers to acquire digital skills. In 2012, 3.2 million Americans – about 16 percent of the working-age population – didn’t have any digital skills. This is not surprising given that in households making below $30,000 a year, three in ten adults don’t even own a smartphone. For a quarter of rural Americans, high-speed internet is a major problem. One in five teens sometimes can’t finish their homework due to lack of internet access. The digitization of census could exacerbate the risk of undercounting rural, low-income, minority groups, who are already disadvantaged.

In April, Congress introduced a new digital equity bill to provide digital access to students nationwide. The Department of Agriculture is working to improve rural infrastructure, including broadband connection. These are good efforts, but not enough. The Federal Communications Commission, even as it tries to increase rural broadband deployment in the next 10 years, is actually working against low-income urban residents. It has reduced 30 percent of Lifeline, which subsidizes phone and internet access for poor households. Broadband was part of a $2 trillion infrastructure spending plan Congress and the White House agreed on, but it’s not clear whether it will even materialize. Connectivity is hardly an election issue, except for Senator Amy Klobuchar, who pledged to install broadband in every household by 2022. There is not even an accurate broadband-access map for the entire country.

All the while, the rest of the world is getting better connected. Even in Africa, where poverty and a large continent with a low population density make it notoriously difficult to build internet connection, firms are innovating to erect small, solar-powered cell towers or use cheap Wi-Fi equipment to distribute satellite internet to serve remote areas. Google is working to provide Wi-Fi connectivity to remote locations in Kenya using high-altitude, solar-powered balloons that work as cell towers.

But infrastructure is only half of the solution. Unlike college-educated folks who frequent online learning sites, many people don’t know how to search information or protect themselves online. For those worried about making ends meet, “digital literacy” may not be a priority.  

This is why the federal government has to step in. It should overhaul the outdated federal training programs to promote digital literacy by making robust investment. Unfortunately, two decades of disinvestment in skills training is not a track record that inspires confidence. The current administration’s “devotion” to the American workers remains largely rhetorical, as it proposes consolidating and eliminating training programs in next year’s budget. The U.S. should learn from countries like Singapore, which encourages lifelong learning by subsidizing training for all adults. The Danish government collaborates with labor unions and companies in order to prepare workers to meet the needs of evolving industries.

Skeptics argue that what works for Singapore or Denmark would not work for the U.S., given its much deeper problems over inequality and diversity. But what matters is that these countries have taken actual bold steps to help their citizens adapt to change. Some companies, too, are realizing the need for “reskilling” their workers to stay competitive. Amazon plans to invest $700 million to retrain one third of its American workers for higher-skilled jobs, as it rolls out more automation technology. AT&T has invested $1 billion to retrain half of its workforce, rather than hire new talent. Google offers IT training both to its employees and the public.

Not everyone will thrive in the modern digital economy. But with a serious bipartisan commitment — including sustainable funding — and collaboration with industries, the number of those who fall behind can be minimized. People need retraining as well as a renewed sense of purpose for this new post-industrial economy.

We leave them unversed in digital literacy at our own peril.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2019. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

(Photo Credit: AJ Gage Designer via Creative Commons)