Robots, Yes Robots, Could Be Trump’s Greatest Threat

The rise of automation is destined to replace some worker employment, and it could increasingly cause friction with efforts to create new jobs, a hallmark of the Donald Trump administration.

Many studies have forecast a day when repetitive and labor-intensive jobs will be recast by automation, though the jury is still out about whether the humans now holding those jobs will be elevated to more meaningful positions that utilize automation or will be replaced outright.

One particular technology, self-driving cars, is on pace to emerge en masse in 2021, right around the next election, as most car manufacturers will offer these features in their fleets. Furthermore, Lyft has partnered with GM to roll out self-driving on-demand fleets, and Uber and Mercedes have forged a partnership with a similar offering. Uber also purchased Otto, which automates large trucks — a move that will have profound effects on safety, speed, and the shortage of truck drivers.

Today, a large segment of working Americans are professional drivers, which means that many will soon find themselves questioning whether they have a career, job, or income. This will leave the current Trump administration at a crossroads of deciding how to respond. Currently, the Trump administration has pinned its campaign and promise on keeping jobs on American soil and keeping products made in America. This played well to the base of the working class and resulted in his rise to the highest seat in politics. Meanwhile, however, Trump has been very quiet on the topic of automation, and some suggest that automation could undermine his core position.

Far from mainstream America, Silicon Valley represents a bubble that reveals parts of what the future will hold. Just last week, I filmed an automated barista serving coffee in San Francisco without the need for humans, and a few months ago, I visited an automated restaurant in the same neighborhood. In my local city, Starship Technologies is already starting to ship food to people’s homes and offices using a robot. Mercedes, Amazon, Google, GE, and many other companies are also quickly advancing in robotics.

It’s not limited to the physical world, either. As bots and artificial intelligence continue to rise, we’ll see that lower-level white-collar and even mid-level white-collar workers will be impacted (either augmented or replaced) by automation. Take, for example, Walmart, which recently laid off 7,000 in its white-collar billing department by using back office automation technologies.

How will this administration respond to automation? I see a few options:

  1. Resist automation and place limitations. The current administration may seek to limit the amount of automation that can be deployed, keeping American workers intact. The risk is that foreign competitors could leapfrog ahead in productivity by deploying robots, as China-based Foxconn is already doing.
  2. Embrace automation, as it lifts American productivity and GDP. The administration might welcome automation, embracing the productivity benefits it brings to company performance, country GDP, and taxes. The risk is that displaced workers who are unable to upskill will be left in the cold.
  3. Upskill workers with STEAM education. All workers whose positions are threatened by automation could benefit from provided or low-cost education that enables them to upskill so they can manage or support automation rather than be displaced. Some have found that robots actually increase the number of jobs in some scenarios.
  4. Embrace universal basic income. In a less likely scenario, I could imagine the current administration embracing universal basic income, which would be a social program to provide all citizens with a living wage (food, clothing, shelter, and education) regardless of employment status or age. The funds would be derived from taxes on the companies that are deploying automation. The hope is that automation increases total productivity, generating more food, goods, and services than ever before, thereby creating a surplus for humanity. However, IDC industry analyst Alan Webber has given me feedback on this scenario that suggests it is at odds with Republican values, an assessment that’s in agreement with government expert Alan Silberberg in a phone discussion with me.

America and other countries can’t stop innovating their automation and risk lagging behind, as that will give other competitors the opportunity to leap forward. Within the next few years, the Trump administration and other global leaders focused on nationalism will need to prepare a message and plan to deal with the automation that will certainly change the job landscape.

My suggestions: The Trump administration (or any administration, for that matter) should quickly: 1) assess which jobs will be automated, 2) make plans to communicate this to the public, 3) prepare its base with upskilling, 4) and prepare to partner with the technology companies that will be driving this new future. This is the best path forward for the people, businesses, government, country, and world — there’s more at stake than political position.