Why the Robot Revolution Is a Lot Less Certain Than You Think

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Why you should care

Because robots are coming for your jobs … or are they?

Welcome to Number Crunching With OZY. In this occasional series, we ask businesspeople, experts, celebrities and thought leaders to discuss a single number that is most important to them. This time: Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta.

Say goodbye to the 9-to-5. The future of work is coming, and it’s totally different from your current routine. The only problem is, we don’t really know precisely how different and in what ways. Will robots do everything and humans require government stipends to survive? Technologists, social scientists and politicians desperately need to figure out how this uncertain future will evolve out of our secure, predictable, office-bound present.

Well, it turns out that our understanding of how work works now is almost as bad as how it will change in the future. Believe it or not:

51 percent of American workers do not have a stable paycheck every month.

Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital fund focusing on the future of work, cites this statistic as the most important number shaping his approach to investing. It comes from research by a commission co-chaired by Bahat and assembled by Bloomberg and the New America think tank. It doesn’t necessarily mean the gig economy has already taken over — for example, some of the respondents may be real estate agents or waitstaff, Bahat explains. He cites the 51 percent figure to assert that many workers do not have certainty and stability in their working lives — “We’re seeing very few people quit stable jobs in order to do gig work, and therefore that suggests many people prefer certainty,” he says — and so society must be wary of managing technological innovations that serve to increase that sense of uncertainty.

We need not be condemned to a dystopian future of robot overlords and ever-increasing uncertainty about how humans put food on the table.

But above all else, for Bahat, the finding shows one thing: We need a reality check on what work currently looks like before we can hypothesize about the future. There are “so many orders of magnitude better data” — in terms of both quantity and quality — in, say, climate science than in economic science, decries Bahat, and so the predictions of a supposedly imminent robot revolution are blown out of proportion, he says.

This lack of clarity about the future of work means there is a lack of inevitability — Bahat argues that we need not be condemned to a dystopian future of robot overlords and ever-increasing uncertainty about how humans put food on the table. Indeed, “there are places in which we can intervene, so the first step is to be conscious that we are in control of these things,” agrees political science professor Margaret Levi, who coordinates a research project on the future of work at Stanford — “not totally, but we’re [currently] not exercising the control that we have.”

While all this may seem reassuring, it also opens us up to a wider variety of contested outcomes. Some, for example, would look at Bahat’s statistic about unstable incomes and praise flexible labor markets and the empowering ability of the gig economy to provide freedom to workers; others see a precarious labor force unable to plan for the future. And so how the future pans out depends largely on who is making these choices. Levi argues that it is a “communal, social responsibility” to debate these issues and engage with them before it is too late. But for Bahat, it is clear where the onus of responsibility lies — Silicon Valley: “It is incumbent on those who create technologies, and as an investor in these technologies it is incumbent on me, to have a point of view on the society in which we live, and to engage with it.”

And therein lies the problem — do we want the compromise between robots and workers brokered by politicos in Washington, by techies in Silicon Valley or by neither of those, thank you very much? Indeed, Bahat admits, for every single one of the competing potential future scenarios that the Bloomberg/New America commission’s report described, there was “some reasonable person saying it’s a utopia, and some reasonable person saying it’s a dystopia.” So the question is not “How bad will the future be?” but instead, “For whom is this heaven, and for whom is this hell?”

OZY’s educational wing, OZY EDU, is touring the nation’s colleges to bring important conversations into the classroom. First up: The Future of Work. We’re exploring how everything from automation to the gig economy is reshaping work, and how the education system can keep up. Read more.

Text & reporting by James Watkins; video editing by Kevin O’Dowd.

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