07/13/2017 11:20 EDT | Updated 07/13/2017 11:23 EDT

Canada Needs A Modern Labour Policy In The Age Of AI And Automation

More than 40 per cent of jobs could be wiped out in next 10 to 20 years, on par with what happened during the Great Recession.

Baran azdemir
An autonomous warehouse.

I had a very close friend in Grade 5. We played together and shared our lunches always. He was certainly my best buddy. His father was a cashier at the nearby bank. I still remember the first day of Grade 6, when the school reopened after the long summer break. I was so happy that I would see my friend after a long time. But I was very disappointed when I learned that my friend had left the town and I wouldn't see him again. The bank had replaced his father with an automatic teller machine.

My father was a coffee grower and he used automation for his farming. I am glad that automation didn't interrupt my schooling. However, it had replaced a lot of daily wage labourers who were working on our farm.

I reconnected with my friend after 15 years and was very disappointed to hear about how he had been disadvantaged economically during his childhood. Today, there is a huge financial inequality.

Economists debate the extent to which technology plays a role in economic inequality, although it has created opportunities and a better standard of living for many.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A self-checkout machine at a Kroger Co. supermarket.

The third industrial revolution

In 1790, farmers made 90 per cent of the world's labour force. We have gone from everyone needing to grow food to modern farming with almost no one needing to grow food. Yet, we still have a surplus amount of food available.

It is not just in the case of the farming sector, it's in all the economic sectors. We have spent several thousands of years building automated machines to cut physical labour. These machines are stronger, reliable and work more tirelessly than the human labourers ever could do. I think this is how economies grow and standards of living rise.

The first industrial revolution was due to mechanization and the second industrial revolution was about mass production. The first two industrial revolutions made the world wealthier and urbanized. Now the third revolution is underway, manufacturing is undergoing automation.

The automation is transforming the way goods are made and changing the politics of jobs. It has already displaced most of the lower-skilled and less-educated workers around the world. And many fear that it could further increase economic inequality.

Impact of automation on Canadian politics

According to the 2016 study, more than 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being replaced by automation in the next two decades. This will certainly lead to widespread inequality and increase homelessness.

Furthermore, this might lead to voters being angry with a system which will make middle-class jobs tougher to come by, as well as increased inequality. This anger in the nation might give rise to populists and automation could be the unseen driver of populism.

While the middle-class jobs are lost due to automation, the blame might be placed on new immigrants taking jobs. But as the studies show the biggest cause of job losses and inequality is actually automation.

We are witnessing the growing anti-immigrant sentiments around the world and how it reshaping the politics. With more and more Canadian industries are set to be revolutionized by automation in next two decades, automation will surely reshape the politics of jobs in Canada.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bill Morneau, Canada's finance minister, centre left, speaks as Kathleen Wynne, premier of Ontario, center right, looks on during a demonstration at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, Ont. on March 30, 2017. A new institute for artificial intelligence research opened with funding from the federal and Ontario governments as well as the private sector.

Impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on Canadian jobs

The third industrial revolution is all about automation, which made human labour less in demand. The next industrial revolution will make human brain labour less in demand. Economists are already predicting that the AI will be the fourth industrial revolution.

A number of AI-related innovations is already emerging, ranging from energy-efficient smart cities to self-driving trucks. I am certain that AI could be a catalyst in bringing efficiency in governance, like in the sectors of health care, etc. Many concerns emerge as well. Will it displace more Canadians workers out of a number of jobs?

There are nearly 300,000 truck drivers in Canada, for example. Now, this entire workforce is in danger. Self-driving trucks are not the dreams of the future anymore. A fleet of autonomous trucks has legally driven across highways of Nevada, all without human intervention.

The adoption of AI technology in Canada has the potential to displace many jobs -- and not just truck drivers. Under these circumstances, Canada should prepare for the effects of automation and AI on our labour force.

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government's Pan-Canadian AI strategy which aims to put Canada at the center of an emerging gold rush of innovation. So, what does this actually mean for economic inequality, homelessness and poverty?

What does the future of work mean to British Columbia (B.C.)?

As mentioned, more than 40 per cent of jobs could be wiped out in next 10 to 20 years and that means millions of jobs will disappear, on par with what happened during the Great Recession. Without proper policy and training in place, a generation of workers could soon be pushed towards poverty.

Already, B.C. has the second-highest poverty rate in the country and is the only province without a poverty reduction plan. Therefore, B.C. needs politicians pushing for new policies to address a future of work where for most of the jobs, HUMANS NEED NOT APPLY.

One idea gaining traction is something called universal basic income, or UBI. The policy would mean citizens receive a set amount of money from the government. One a Canadian city, Dauphin in Manitoba, has already experimented with UBI and eliminated poverty.

B.C. is likely to experiment with UBI as well. The new NDP-Green Party government has included the basic income in its agreement to govern. The Green Party's argument to institute UBI is due to shifting economy from a non-renewable to a renewable energy economy.

The new government should lay out a broad policy, taking into account AI and automation. Studies have shown giving people money gives them a sense of dignity and empowerment. So they continue to pursue their passion projects leading to an era of unprecedented innovation. Therefore, UBI would help B.C. move from resource to innovation economy.

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