The digital new deal could involve companies retraining workers when robots take over their jobs © Matt Kenyon

In my column on Monday, I proposed that the coming economic and political disruption that will result from the rise of artificial intelligence would require the public and private sector in the US to come together and create a kind of “digital New Deal” for the up to 25 per cent of the global workforce who would be made redundant. I invited readers to write in with their thoughts about how such a solution might work.

They responded with ideas that range from the practical and detailed (including a 1930s style public investment bank), to the systemic (revamp education) to the existential (figure out a new definition for work and what it means). Below, is an edited selection of the comments.

A latter-day New Deal

Saule T. Omarova, a professor of law at Cornell University, describes a proposal she co-authored with colleague Robert C. Hockett to create a new National Investment Authority — a hybrid of the New Deal-era Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a modern sovereign wealth fund, and a private equity firm — that would develop and implement a national strategy for the development of the real economy.

She writes: “The proposal is framed in terms of financing public infrastructure, but it is much broader and more ambitious than simply new roads. We envision it along the lines of the latter-day New Deal approach to financing transformative, large-scale, publicly beneficial projects that would create sustainable jobs and help the country regain its competitive edge — but without exacerbating inequality and excesses of private power. Even though the scope of our proposal is broader than specific AI-related problems, it specifically targets these types of structural imbalances in the economy. We think of this new proposed entity as a “publicly owned BlackRock” that will finance and channel technological progress in ways that benefit all of us, and not just the richest few.”

Rely on the labour market

The fatal defect of a 25 per cent solution, argues Paul A. Myers in an online comment, is that it is a gimmick to try to get around the labour market, which is historically the only effective way to recycle workers in the American economy. The labour market exists to match skills with employment demands. Effective retraining requires workers to go through an education or skills-building intermediary and then be matched up with a new employment demand. In many cases, workers have to recycle back through the labour market. The overall public goal has to be to re-stock the labour pool with new skills. That’s hard to do by keeping employees inside an existing organisation if the skills shift is too great.

Rethink the corporation

The trouble is that the financial benefits of automation and AI flow to a disproportionately small number of people, says Emanuel Derman. One may need to re-evaluate the notion of a corporation and its rights to mitigate this.

Relax and redistribute

The key three facts about AI, writes Jeffrey D. Sachs in online comments, are that it will reduce work time, reduce the wages of low-skilled labour, and shift income distribution towards various forms of capital (human, technological, physical). The societal answers will involve more leisure, schooling, and voluntary activities, all fairly shared (for example, guaranteed leave policies for all workers, a right that does not now exist in the US), plus more not less taxation of capital (intellectual, human, patents, and physical) for redistribution for the general public. This will not come, most likely, in the form of universal basic income, but rather as some functional equivalents, for example with subsidised work time for low-wage workers (as with the earned income tax credit), universal access to public services paid for by taxation on capital, capital grants for newborns, etc.

Prepare for the worst

On a macro level, writes A German in the US in online comments, countries will need to offer UBI. On a micro level, people should ask themselves whether to bring babies to this world in which their offspring might live with implanted chips, a surveillance state, cyborgs, and more. Of course, this future will be sold as one that eradicates many diseases, which will be true. The net will still be dystopian.

Why should we work?

There is a fundamental issue with so many analyses such as this, argues PastelSunrise in online comments: the premise that work is a good in itself. When working and jobs are no longer necessary, why should we work? Why should traipsing to an office between 9 and 5 five days a week be a desired end if it is no longer functionally required? Surely it is time to be bolder: to create a new AI social contract where the questions of what constitutes a good life and our relationship to our states, societies and each other are thoroughly debated in a post-work world.

The social contract will need to be re-evaluated so that paid work isn’t an essential element, says Realist in online comments. The sooner first-world governments accept this the better. The culture of work for the sake of work has to end.

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