Robots: The Best Employees You Will Ever Have

August 28, 2017
By Yanique Redwood

When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 54 years ago today, I doubt that he and the 250,000 marchers imagined that the jobs they were fighting for could be gone in 70 years. According to a 2017 study by McKinsey Global Institute, half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, give or take 20 years. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that 38% of US jobs are at high risk for automation by the early 2030s—that’s just 15 years from now.

However, according to a Pew Research Center study, while most people believe that automation will be disruptive, 80% don’t believe their jobs will be at risk. Most immediately, automation has and will take place in retail and manufacturing settings, but dermatologists, therapists, lawyers, pharmacists, journalists and others should pay attention.

I didn’t believe all of this until my Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) colleague Bill Generett raised the issue at a recent fellowship gathering and I had some experiences with robots that changed my perspective.

My Experience with Robots

My husband is a bit of a science-fiction buff, so when he began to make the case to me last year that robots would soon be replacing workers, I scoffed at him. But, recently I heard an advertisement for a robot-run ice-cream kiosk franchise opportunity on the radio. One of the ad’s slogans was that the robot “never requires time off.” The ad ended with a statement that this robot will be the best employee that you will ever have. Hearing this blatant pitting of workers against robots left me speechless.

Then, just a few weeks later, I was walking down P Street with a colleague of mine. As we got to the crosswalk, a hard plastic container on wheels the size of a small moving box pulled up and waited right next to us. I looked at it. I looked at the guy standing behind it and thought to myself that this must be some new dog carrier, and that guy is a dog owner. However, when the light changed, the box on wheels started to move, seemingly on its own. I looked at my colleague and asked, “What is that?” She replied, “Oh, you haven’t seen those? It’s a robot delivering merchandise.” Needless to say, I am now a believer.

Implications for Philanthropy

As the president of the Consumer Health Foundation, where one of our portfolios is focused on economic justice (e.g., advocacy for better wages and worker benefits), I am now wondering how we prepare for the elimination of the very jobs that we are striving to improve. One solution that is now being promoted by those who know that an automated future is near is Universal Basic Income (UI). Right now in Oakland, California, Sam Altman, the president of the Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator, is personally funding a UBI experiment by providing 100 families with $1500 per month without conditions of any kind. The idea is that everyone should have enough income to meet their needs. This is not a new concept, by any means, but it is gaining momentum among our nation’s tech industry billionaires.

There is much to debate about the prospect of new jobs replacing those that are going away and the merits of UBI. There are even debates about taxing robots. I envision philanthropy as a hub for testing and investing in cutting-edge solutions, especially when it comes to policies and systems changes that benefit people of color who are struggling the most in our region. What can we imagine to interrupt the pace of artificial intelligence, create new opportunities for entrepreneurship, subsidize lost income and enable community production? What might we learn from communities of color who have been struggling with high rates of unemployment for decades? Is anyone in the D.C. region up for a lunch-and-learn conversation to discuss?


Article about the robot I saw on P Street.

McKinsey article entitled, Harnessing Automation for a Future that Works.

Article about universal basic income.

Article about public perceptions of automation by Pew Research Center.

Article that imagines future work scenarios and how we can prepare.

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