About a year ago I happened to be sitting next to an executive from UBER on a train. He told me about the massive investments UBER was making in self-driving vehicles and estimated that by the year 2025 a quarter of all vehicles on the road would be self-driving. I suspect that this will happen sooner, since Tesla, Google, and all the auto manufacturers are investing heavily in this new technology. This means that not only UBER drivers will be displaced by robot vehicles, but the 8 million cab drivers, truckers, delivery drivers, etc. will be displaced. Where will they find employment instead? The digitization of the workplace is accelerating and nothing can stop it - not legislation, not union activism, not even Donald Trump. Very few jobs will emerged unscathed from this tsunami of automation - even high-paying middle class jobs such as marketing, accounting, and law. Robots and algorithms will continue to displace humans.
Well, the optimists say, technology has always brought disruption to the workplace, but new jobs were created and employment levels always recovered and even grew. But this time may be different, according to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla:
In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. Economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality, but if basic drivers of job creation change then outcomes may be different. Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. Education was one method for humans to leverage technology as it evolved and improved. However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge relevant to a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.
What does this mean for democracy? Democracies can only exist with a thriving middle-class, but we've already seen the middle class in the US shrinking as manufacturing jobs have either been sent offshore to cheaper labor markets or displaced by robots. Those jobs are gone forever, despite what Donald Trump has promised his base. But this trend will only accelerate with the rise of the robots as labor becomes redundant for the vast majority of workers and capital is controlled by a small elite. The growing inequality will only convince the masses that democracy is a sham - that the system is "rigged" - and they will continue to gravitate towards populist or even neo-fascist movements.
The robots are here to stay, but there is a way out of this dystopian nightmare and preserve democracy: a radical redistribution of resources with a universal basic income. The journalist Thomas Straubhaar, writing in Die Welt, insists that the time for an "unconditional basic income is now ( "Jetzt ist es Zeit für ein bedingungsloses Gundeinkommen"):
Statt die Welt von morgen dem Sozialstaat von vorgestern anpassen zu wollen, wäre es klüger, heute einen Sozialstaat für die Welt von morgen zu schaffen. Dabei zeigt sich an mehr und mehr Stellen, dass die Zeit für ein bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen gekommen ist. Hin zu einer garantierten Teilhabe und einer Ermächtigung aller – im Voraus. Hin zu Lebens- und Verhaltensweisen, die der Realität des 21. Jahrhunderts entsprechen. Hin zu einer Finanzierung, die auch die Wertschöpfung von Robotern einbezieht. Hin zu einem Sozialstaat der Zukunft, nicht der Vergangenheit.
Will our political leaders adjust to the new reality and agree to such a radical redistribution of resources? Probably not - at least not in the United States. For the concept of a universal base income is anathema to the American mindset; any "welfare"-like program is treated with disdain, despite the overwhelming success of Social Security and Medicare. So the era of the robot will inevitably lead to the twilight of democracy.