The job of the future

創造技術専攻 Innella Giovanni 助教

Recently, there are two discussions that keep my head busy. One is about “citizen’s income”, and the other one is about the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on our future jobs. The two discussions can be intertwined and lead to some interesting considerations. In this short article, I will reflect about both and put them in relation with each other.

Article I of the Italian constitution states that Italy is a Democratic Republic based on work. Work is what makes its inhabitants part of the Italian State and that, in a sense, qualifies them as citizens. In fact, working is often one of the activities that better fulfills people and makes them feel socially useful. This is written in the Italian constitution, but it is true in most countries of the world, especially in Japan where working plays a very important social role and all citizens capable of undertaking a job are expected to do so, for the sake of the individual’s fulfillment and the community’s wellbeing.

So, if work is so important, what will happen when our work will be taken by machines? This is a question that people have asked to themselves since the times of the first industrialization. On a social level, responses have been given by policies that should protect those who cannot or do not work. In most societies, the community takes care of those who are not employed. In fact, our governments tax working people so to gather the resources to support those without a job. If workers are no longer people, but machines, then the tax system must be radically rethought. The most provocative proposal – but perhaps also the most realistic one – in this direction is to tax the machines, the robots. This proposal was supported by Bill Gates, an expert when it comes to machines.

It is at this point of our discussion that the “citizen’s income” comes into play. Many countries, among which are The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and even Italy are now discussing the possibility of giving a basic income to all the citizens. In Japan, this type of subsidization is backed mainly by the New Party Nippon and the Green Party of Japan. According to the supporters of such a policy, “citizen’s income” would grant people a dignified life and at the same time encourage consumption. Consumption is in fact the way we support our economies, the way – or at least one way – through which we pay taxes and contribute to the general wealth. Basically, we will receive money in order to become better and greater consumers. This represents a huge shift from the actual model, in which money is given as a reward for being a laborious worker.

In the future, when jobs will be taken by robots, taxes derived from robots would help pay for the “citizen’s income”. These proposals open up particularly interesting scenarios that question the concept of citizenship and our relationship with the machines. First of all, we will have to understand according to what criteria we will be taxing machines. That is, do the robots have to pay taxes in their country of origin (where they are manufactured), or in the country where they are used? For example, a German brand robot, but employed in China, to say, will have to produce tax revenue in China, Germany or both countries? And then, how does the robot have to be taxed? Will it be a lamp sum fee, or a recurring fee regardless of how much the robot is being used? Will the robot be taxed for the actual work time, for the operations it performs or for the products it produces? We immediately realize that any answer to these questions can manifest itself in a different robot and, consequently, in different products. There could be very fast robots if we decided to tax their use time, or there might be very rough products if we chose to tax the number of mechanical operations.

In addition, having the robot as a taxpayer changes our understanding of what a robot is and it transforms it into a social actor to be protected. As is the case for the worker now, the robot that does not work tomorrow will be a social problem. Therefore, we will remain dependent on production and therefore consumption.

Let’s now bring back the “citizen’s income” in our discourse. A hypothetical “citizen's income” strengthens the idea of a consumer-citizen model. That is, the civil liability of the individual will shift from working to consuming. One could now argue that consuming and working are two activities that can be assimilated to each other. In fact, especially in our times, consumption produces information about what we need and what we like. Think of how many new designs are based on market research and how many products are proposed to us according to other products we have bought previously. At the moment, artificial intelligence is used to simply monitoring consumptions so to inform the design of new products, but it would not be so bizarre to imagine that in the future artificial intelligence will automatically generate new products simply on the basis of what society consumes.

So, if in the future we will not need to work, or to design products, what will we do? Well, there are few things that machines cannot do, or cannot do particularly well. One of these is caring. Technically, machines can take care of us. Take parenting for example. Parenting implies a series of almost technical activities, such as feeding a baby when hungry, cleaning when dirty, and so on. However, there are other aspects of being a parent that are crucial, enjoyable and that define us as humans. This activities are hard to describe technically, but they involve things such as caring, feeling empathy, sharing, teaching, learning, discussing, arguing… all these aspects of a human relationship are hardly going to be undertaken by artificial intelligence, simply because they do not require any intelligence at all. They are at the very core of our condition of humans. Besides parenting, there are many other more superficial relationships that make up for our societies. Your relationship with other family members, friends, colleagues, with your barista, with your favorite celebrity, and so on…

Working, besides being an economical activity, it also embeds strong societal, cultural and relational components. If we do not need to work, we might still want to work, just to build, strengthen and explore the human aspects and relationships included in the act of undertaking a job and occupying a job position. For instance, in the future, you might want to work at the local café for a couple of weeks, just to see how it feels and enjoy the social part of work.

The conclusion of our reflection might seem like a paradox. In a world that evolves technically, the aspect of our society that will benefit the most might be the very human one. Technology, artificial intelligence, robots, will all give us a big opportunity to focus on ourselves and on our relationship with the other humans around us. We only need to define our relationship with the machines, first. Including their annual tax declaration.