A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Full Employment

When I started the journey that led me here, the last thing I had in mind was robots.

I was trying to figure out a strategy for progressives to move the economy towards creating good jobs for all. Then I started bumping into articles about the revolutions going on in robotics and artificial intelligence. The more I read, the more I realized I needed a Plan B, because there’s a pretty good chance that between 2025 and 2040, robots and automation will eliminate 30% to 70% of all jobs.

To put that in context, the unemployment rate at the height of the Great Depression was 25%.

You might say, isn’t 2040 too far in the future to worry about?

Let’s put it in perspective. If a child is born today and that child goes to college, by the time they’ve settled into their first job it’s 2040. So yeah, we’ve got some time. But 2040 isn’t some far-off sci-fi future; it’s our kids’ future.

Wrapping our heads around catastrophe that’s a little off in the future is pretty hard. But this one is even trickier. Unlike, say, climate change we really can’t know in advance when robotics, AI, and automation will have a big impact. It could turn out that we don’t have to worry it until 2140. If that’s the case, then there’s no point sweating it – things may have changed so much by then that it won’t matter. Or it could turn out that robots, AI, and automation create mass unemployment by 2030. We could make an educated guess, but we can’t really know.

So what do we do?

I think the answer isn’t a specific policy, it’s a strategy. I call it Makers All.

Makers All argues that the best way to protect our children’s future is to make sure that from Harlem to Harlan County, every community develops a web of folks with a broad range of expertise in robotics/AI – as well as the emerging technologies of 3-D printing, wearables, and the Internet of things – who are organized to fight to ensure that this new technology is used to benefit all of our communities. If we can democratize this knowledge, I think we’ve got a fighting chance:

  • It’ll give these communities the grounding they’ll need to take on the “makers versus takers” frame the 1% will use. In a world where huge numbers of people will be permanently unemployed, Makers All will make it much easier to smack down the idea that the people who can’t find jobs are just lazy parasites and argue instead that the crisis is about people who have the skills but not the opportunities to make a living and contribute to our society.
  • It’ll give these communities enough of an understanding of how the tech works to be able to organize around seemingly arcane issues – e.g., who owns the knowledge about robots, a.k.a. intellectual property law – that will have a huge impact on our lives.
  • It’ll create opportunities for options of how we shape/nudge the economy that we wouldn’t have otherwise – e.g., a 21st-century equivalent of 40 Acres and a Mule.

Equally importantly, it’ll also give us a chance to use what could be a truly unique opportunity to build a more just and abundant world for all.

In this blog, I’m going to unpack these ideas and explore the nuts & bolts of turning Makers All into a reality.