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Andres Oppenheimer: Trump, world leaders at G-20 summit must tackle robots’ impact on our jobs

November 29, 2018

When President Trump and the leaders of China, Russia, Germany and other major economies meet in Argentina for the G-20 summit on Nov. 30, they will spend part of their time discussing what will probably be one of the world’s most important issues over the next decade: the future of jobs.

Granted, it’s an issue that — despite being the official theme of the meeting — will most likely be buried behind the headlines focusing on the U.S.-China trade dispute or the nuclear threat of North Korea.

But the summit of the G-20, as the group of the world’s 20 biggest economies is known, is scheduled to spend at least one of its four sessions focused on the coming disruption in the world labor market.

Tens of millions of jobs likely will be lost, and worldwide wages may be further depressed because of the growing use of robots, algorithms and other intelligent machines.

A 2013 Oxford University study predicted that 47 percent of existing jobs in the United States are at risk of disappearing over the next 10 years because of automation. Subsequent studies by the World Bank estimated that job losses in emerging countries such as China and Mexico will be much bigger, because they have more manufacturing factories whose workers can be easily replaced by robots.

Factory workers aren’t the only ones at risk; so are restaurant waiters, hotel concierges, bankers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, journalists and members of virtually all other professions.

Recently, China’s official Xinhua news agency announced the debut of the first robotic television news anchor, who looks and talks exactly like one of China’s best-known news announcers. But unlike a human, the robot has the advantage of working three shifts in a row, doesn’t take vacations and never demands a raise.

Earlier this year, Las Vegas hotel workers threatened to go on strike because of the growing use of robotic waiters and bartenders.

The robots take meals to guests’ rooms, and robotic barmen prepare casino patrons’ drinks — allegedly much better than those made by their human counterparts because the robots are not distracted by customers while preparing the drinks.

Granted, robots have been around for decades and have not produced mass unemployment. But they are now increasingly cheaper — and much smarter.

In the past, they were individual machines. Now, they are connected with each other through cloud computing and can learn from each others’ mistakes and accomplishments.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who will chair the G-20 summit as leader of the host country, told me in a recent interview in Buenos Aires that he placed the future of jobs at the top of the G-20 meeting’s agenda. He said the issue will affect all countries, regardless of their development levels.

According to G-20 summit preparatory documents, while technology will create new jobs, there will be an “impact on inequality within and between countries.”

Low-skilled workers will have a much harder time reinventing themselves as data analysts than engineers or other high-skilled workers.

The summit’s draft documents call for countries to make it easier for independent workers to take their social security benefits from job to job, and even from country to country.

As more and more people work in Uber-like freelance jobs, countries should seek to protect people, not jobs, drafters of the document say.

Also, the summit’s draft documents say that, “Countries should also ensure an appropriate taxation of the digital economy.” Several European countries argue that, as e-commerce and the digital economy become increasingly dominant, there should be a tax on sales of digital goods and services. The United States, home of Amazon and other big tech firms, has traditionally opposed this idea.

Other questions that surely will come up are whether countries should create a universal basic income for workers who will be displaced by technology and whether there should be a tax on robots, as Microsoft founder Bill Gates has proposed.

It’s time to start addressing such questions, whatever the answers. Technologic acceleration is already eliminating many jobs and depressing wages. Even if the G-20 meeting does nothing more than draw world attention to this issue, it will be a good start.

Andres Oppenheimer is a correspondent for the Miami Herald. Email: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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