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Ask US Presidential Candidates "The Robot Question"

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"As president, what would be your approach to workforce automation?" That’s an important question that has yet to be raised during the 2016 presidential election race, but the answer could have a profound impact on how trends in automation impact the wider economy. 

Predictions may vary as to how many jobs the American economy could lose over the next one or two decades. An Oxford study predicts 47% of jobs could be automated by 2033; consulting firm Gartner predicts 33% by 2025. A recent OECD study suggests previous figures to be very much overblown, that the total jobs lost to automation in the next two decades is closer to 9% across 21 countries. In any event, that the next President may preside over as many as eight years of confronting and engaging with these trends suggests that 2016 candidates should offer their perspectives for review.

Jobs and economic growth consistently rank high for the American electorate and 2016 is no different. Voters have shown considerable concern about the effects of manufacturing jobs being sent overseas to employ low-wage workers in places like China. Recently the authors of The Second Machine Age, Andrew Mcafee and Erik Brynjolfsson, along with economist Michael Spence wrote in Foreign Affairs that "offshoring is often only a way station on the road to automation." Moreover, these jobs are currently being automated abroad and are unlikely to be returned to employ large numbers of American workers. Additionally, the issue of increasing economic inequality has been cause for concern for years now and the prospect of a more automated labor market has the potential to intensify this issue.

Numerous thinkers with backgrounds in economics, sociology, and innovation have begun thinking about the prospect of technological unemployment. Some suggest more public funds spent on education for both young Americans who have yet to enter the job market and for workers displaced by trends in automation who may soon need to learn new skills and trades. Universal basic income is another proposed solution supported by a range of economic thinkers from John Stuart Mill to Milton Friedman as well as American historical figures like Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King, Jr. Others still suggest a shorter work week to deal with an economy that has a smaller demand for human laborers.

The notion of “robots taking our jobs” may seem the stuff of far-fetched science fiction, but workforce automation is a topic worthy of serious consideration from the highest echelons of public office. Moreover, 2016 is the time to begin the conversation about the apparent challenges of an automated labor force rather than farther down the road when the disruptions may be more severe.

Addendum, August 11: We want to be clear. Future Left views automation as ultimately representing tremendous positive potential for society and the economy: cheaper goods as a result of abundance; more meaningful jobs--and less toil and drudgery--may take the place of those that become automated; artificial intelligence could guide public policy toward precise solutions to endemic problems. The list goes on. We simply want policymakers to think through and prepare for what seem to be inevitable disruptions, be they temporary or permanent. Future Left is unabashedly and definitively pro-robot. But preparation and foresight are required for the positive dividends to be distributed broadly and for any negative consequences to be mitigated.

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