Technological marvels often bring technological anxieties, especially when new advances threaten to affect the labor market.
Today, people worry about robotics and artificial intelligence, as automation has claimed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States in the past 20 years. And experts predict that such technologies will massively decrease blue- and white-collar employment in the coming decades.
However, Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of information studies at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, sees great opportunity. He’s advocating for a digital bill of rights — policies that include forward-thinking ideas about work and automation. These concepts go with the flow of technological progress and emerging trends, while also cultivating a fairer society.
“Changes in technology move far more rapidly than social and political planning,” says Srinivasan, who recently published Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow. “It’s important that we are ahead of the curve with solutions to ensure that everybody in our society is protected.”
Thinking creatively about the jobs of the future is one starting point. From Srinivasan’s point of view, certain types of automation will require — or at least should have — human supervision.
“Auditing systems [where humans monitor machine performance] is an area that is only going to grow and grow,” he says. “This means people who can be the interface between the engineering world and the real world that we live in.”
For example, truck drivers could train self-driving transport vehicles. Journalists could oversee news algorithms on Facebook. This approach also has the potential to make society more equitable, whereas unsupervised tech threatens the opposite.
Artificial intelligence is gaining a foothold in areas that can have a substantial and potentially grave influence on people’s lives, such as determining who gets employment, housing or loans. Some machines map out where police patrol. Workers could help ensure that algorithms — which often are shown to inherit human bias — will work fairly.
Srinivasan also suggests protecting those in flexible but vulnerable internet-enabled jobs: Why not arrange things so that the workers become co-owners of the company itself?
“This model could be [applied to] everything from eBay to Uber [so that] workers have greater equity in the business,” he says. “It’s all about who gets access to the pie that’s created through these technological transformations.”
Meanwhile, demographics alone suggest there is room for significant growth in caregiving, which isn’t susceptible to automation. As baby boomers, the second-largest living generation, proceed into their elder years, the demand for caretakers is expected to increase.
As for the possible effects of the coronavirus, Srinivasan asserts in an op-ed that “employment guarantees and basic income are critical for the sustainability of not just workers, but the numerous businesses that need the assistance of the state and federal government to keep afloat and, most importantly, to provide more, not less, jobs on the other side of this pandemic.”
For now, it’s important to remember that technology is not a negative in and of itself. “It’s not about ‘automation good’ or ‘automation bad,’” Srinivasan says. “We need to get automation right.”