Opinion: RPA Shapes Productivity vs. Human Decency Debate

Robotic process automation (RPA) is replacing jobs in production lines, in corporate back offices and even public transport. While it spells long-term gains for entrepreneurs and solves human resources crunches for blue-collar work, millions of older workers are expected to be forced out of work worldwide.

Just before U.S. President Barack Obama’s departure from the White House, top economic and science advisors produced a report, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy."  The report noted that the imminent problem is not that robots will make human workers redundant, but the types of jobs available are rapidly changing. It indicates that we should adopt education and labor policies to address the plight of workers either displaced by technology or ill-suited for the new opportunities.

Industrie 4.0 is faster and farther reaching than any of the earlier revolutions, and economic historians believe that the era will spell the greatest and longest waves of job losses ever experienced. In modern capitalist systems, your occupation is your identity. And the pain and humiliation felt for displaced workers is going to cause unprecedented widening of income gaps despite current measures to “reskill, retrain and redeploy.”

Universal Basic Income

While education and political systems are scrambling to completely reinvent their training programs and socio-economic policies to prepare the younger generations for an uncertain career future where humans are only needed to fill the gaps that RPA cannot address, prescient governments are trying to ease the impending crisis for current at-risk workers.

Under its Universal Basic Income scheme, Finland issued 100,000 eligible workers nearly USD 1,000 a month as an experiment. Similar programs are in various stages of trial in Canada, the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland. The program is a means for governments to alleviate the financial burden of displaced older workers and get money into the hands of those who need it. The recipients could use the free money to pick up new entrepreneurial opportunities, become free from their current jobs, invest in their children’s well-being and education, or spend on creative or other endeavors that spurn new businesses or career options.

The idea of a universal basic income is a noteworthy product of conscience amidst the cold clarion call of capitalism. Yet, it is a tricky proposition that is neither self-sustaining nor manageable without considering the various other consequences. The White House counter-proposed a “universal basic adjustment benefit “ that would consist of carrots meant to encourage the displaced workforce to seek new livelihoods by offering wage insurance, job counseling, relocation subsidies and other forms of support. Again, this is a pragmatic compromise that may never see the light of day, but at least some semblance of conscience lays at the heart of such ideas.

Bigger Picture of Capitalistic Conscience

Peter Buffet once said, “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back’.” His was a reminder that capitalism without a conscience would ultimately backfire if the uber-rich technopreneurs did not spare a thought for the lowest rungs of employment that directly or indirectly form the customer base of their businesses.

How often do people cringe when they read of chief officers retrenching thousands of staff only to earn a fat bonus for the reorganization? Or when that same downsizing failed to improve bottom lines due to the lack of vision of these same chief officers, and yet they were laid off with a multimillion-dollar stock option package?

Paul Mason’s book “PostCapitalism: Envisaging a Shared Future" asserts that capitalism is being systematically undermined by the fruits of its innovation. Mason contended that, if we continue down our current path where technology is deployed without conscience, it will suffocate us and lead to a world of growing division, inequality, and war. "We already have systems for valuing things without prices. Working on optimizing the technologies we have available to expand these systems, allowing us to live more sustainable, equal and happy lives,” he noted.

In a similar vein, Jack Ma’s memorable comment about tempering capitalism with humanism goes: "Today, making money is very simple. But making sustainable money while being responsible to society and improving the world is very difficult."

With RPA priming profit-obsessed mindsets to become the best in the world and treat it as a trophy, Jack’s wisdom is a timely reminder that we can reinvent jobs, revamp educational curricula and pay lip service to the workers displaced by technology. But ultimately, the social cost of unconscionable capitalism has been, and will continue to be, brought to bear by the collective whole of humankind.