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The future is an unknown unknown

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Humans know how to adapt. We have populated the planet not because we found an agreeable environment everywhere, but because we were able to adapt to the diverse and often hostile environments we moved into. And so it is today. To survive and thrive, we need to adapt to the global forces of our times, from climate change to automation.

Those with the freedom and ability to adapt to these global forces will benefit most. Take automation. Artificial intelligence and robotics now allow most tasks that manual labourers perform to be done without human intervention. One of the most exciting technologies revealed at the end of 2016, from my perspective at least, is an automated washing and ironing machine. Dirty clothes go in on one side and the fully-ironed clothes, folded by tiny robotic hands inside the machine, come out on the other side. Finally those dreary Sunday afternoon ironing exercises will be a thing of the past! Collectively this technology will save millions of productive human hours, particularly for women who in almost every society are still responsible for most home labour.

And yet, this wonderful new technology won’t be welcomed by everyone. South Africans employ more than 1 million domestic workers (or more than 8% of the work force), most of whom are women from poor households. If the cost of this new machine falls considerably in the next decade (and minimum wages continue to rise), we might soon see a significant decline in demand for ironing services. Because poor South Africans do not have the freedom to adapt to these new technologies, unemployment and inequality will likely increase.

There are many other examples. Tesla and other car companies are working on self-driving cars (no need for taxi drivers) and, which is likely to have an even bigger effect, self-driving buses. Truck driving is America’s sixth most common occupation. Or consider McDonald’s most recent innovation: self-ordering counters. No need to employ more expensive and unreliable staff. How long until everything in a McDonald’s restaurant is automated, from food preparation to servicing and cleaning? Amazon has recently revealed its plan to open 2000 automated grocery stores across the US. And then there are the many disruptive digital technologies, which The Economist editor Ryan Avent writes about in his latest book The Wealth of Humans.

The political consequences of these supersonic changes are unknown. As Avent notes, we are the first generation to live through an industrial revolution. There is little in history that tells us how society will react to such rapid changes. He predicts social unrest, unless government or civil society can reform social welfare programs on a massive scale. We have already seen this in South Africa and elsewhere: the democratic process, for many, is too slow and cumbersome. Service delivery protests, the #MustFall-movement and the global shift towards a more nativist conservatism suggest that the voices of those at the bottom of the income distribution will be heard outside the ballot box.

More creative solutions to support those left behind by the benefits of technological innovation and globalisation must be found. One idea is to institute a basic income grant that would give every person in South Africa a monthly stipend. This is no novel idea – Thomas Paine proposed a similar idea in 1797 – but economists are increasingly willing to put the idea in practice: Utrecht, a beautiful Dutch city south of Amsterdam, will next year give several hundred of its inhabitants an annual monthly stipend of 960 euro.

The concern is that people opt out of productive labour if they receive money for free. The consensus, though, is that this is unlikely: the aspirational drive of humans to move up the income ladder will push them to work hard regardless. What a basic income grant does is to make sure the ladder is solidly grounded.

But even a basic income grant won’t do enough. The rapid change will bring about psychological and sociological consequences that are hard to predict. Which social policies to implement, from early-childhood development to adult retraining programmes, in order to combat the technological disruption will be important research questions in the next few years. Creative use of technology, ironically, might be one solution.

Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped that there are known knows (the things we know we know), unknown knows (the things we know we don’t know), and unknown unknowns (the things we don’t know we don’t know). The future used to be mostly unknown knows. With some degree of likelihood, we could analyse the past and make conjectures, following somewhat linear trends, about what the future might hold. Change was incremental; we had time to adapt.

The period of rapid change we have seen since the dawn of the Internet is only likely to accelerate. As a species, we have never been required to adapt this fast, and not everyone in society will have the freedom and ability to do so. This will lead to social conflict. To minimise the consequences of this social conflict, the greatest challenge of the next decade is to enable as many as possible to adapt to the inevitable unknown unknowns of our rapidly-changing world.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 29 December.

**As this is my first post of the year, I would like to wish all readers a productive and memorable 2017. Let’s hope this will be a good one.

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Written by Johan Fourie

January 5, 2017 at 07:09