As ridiculous as it sounds, the ordering kiosks in the Marketplace for SubConnection frighten me. No, I have no illusions that anytime soon, artificial intelligence will rise and conquer the human species. What I do fear is that sooner than later, kiosks like these will spread throughout the University. When they do, they will affect jobs that students may need to do in order to ensure anything from having enough money to go out to actually paying their tuition.
My fear isn’t unfounded; slowly but surely, automation is starting to affect labor across the United States. In the ride-sharing industry, Uber and Lyft have both had their eye on self-driving cars. The former firm had sent fleets to multiple cities, including Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Tempe; while Lyft received a $500 million investment from General Motors last year to help create a network of self-driving cars.
Automation on this kind won’t affect just taxi drivers; it will also profoundly contribute to general job loss in the long term. Analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that by the early 2030s, 38 percent of U.S. jobs will be put at risk by automation, more than other major economies such as the United Kingdom or Germany. This is because more U.S. workers have jobs that require routine labor, such as filing paperwork or ringing up food orders; work that can be done cheaper by artificial intelligence than by human labor. When automation spreads, there will be no excuse for firms not to use it.
It is no secret that many on-campus jobs require this type of labor, including food services, like cashiers and cooks in the various dining halls and the Marketplace, and administrative services, like the secretaries in the Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development. These jobs are automatable, and my ultimate fear is that as automation becomes mainstream, these jobs will be automated. While the consumer may receive slightly lower prices for goods and services, the workers will be much more affected. Student workers who may either be looking for extra money on the side or looking for money just to stay on campus, nonstudents who light up the day of their customers, and so on. People, not machines, will be affected. Are slightly lower prices really worth the costs?
What can be done? There are two courses of action I agree with, one admittedly more feasible than the other. The less feasible one is a system of universal basic income, where every resident of the United States receives an unconditional payment from some institution, be it from the government, or some other place. This idea is dormant, but not new in U.S. politics; it was previously supported by former President Richard Nixon. Worldwide, the idea was tested in London, the Canadian province of Manitoba and in Kenya. All experiments yielded positive results, and a survey taken in 2016 shows that a majority of European Union citizens favor the system.
Why, then, do I doubt its feasibility? Most people do not believe it will work. The system is met by fierce opposition because people see it as either a way to dismantle the social safety net once put in place, or a way to increase inflation (though evidence is mixed on this claim). I do believe universal basic income will do good, but it needs more support. Besides, it doesn’t directly focus on the problem it tries to solve: automation.
We should instead pursue a tax on automation created to discourage its use. Revenue generated by such a tax could go toward our social safety net, particularly toward job training for laborers who’ve been displaced by automation, or — and this is key — funding for education services for universities like Binghamton. Such a course of action is not a priority of the Trump administration, so people must make it one. Start by contacting your representatives in local and the federal government.
Jacob Hanna is a freshman majoring in economics.