Hire that algorithim

I’m all for living in the present. For getting through the next minute, hour, day, or week without any major catastrophe. I’m in favour of seizing the moment, of being at one with whatever it is I’m doing, of living the experience. I subscribe to the philosophy of being present, even if it’s something that most of the time I fail miserably in doing.

I’m not a planner. I’ve only ever had one plan and when that ended in abject failure at the age of 16, I resolved that the only plan I would have would be to have no plan. And yes, my pension has suffered accordingly. It only recently dawned on me that someone would have to look after me in my old age and, without children to depend on, it is either going to be shacking up with my similarly placed girlfriends in a real-life version of the US TV series The Golden Girls, or… well … I don’t even have a plan B.

But it seems that I’m not alone. In a talk at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank earlier this month, Bill Gates put into words what so many are failing to fully realise: the day is fast approaching whereby human endeavour will be replaced by technology. Yes, technology will take our jobs and do them for us. We’ll have no income, no pensions – and then what?

Hire that algorithim

The whole idea of software substitution may sound a tad alien – honestly, can you imagine people being replaced by software programs? Before you say ‘no way’, think back to 20 years ago and ask yourself if you could have imagined a voice called Siri scheduling meetings for you on your iPhone or being able to find out where your mate is by tracking their last post on Facebook.

Maybe the heart surgeons are safe, but those that do less skilful jobs certainly have cause for concern. And if the business of business is to make a profit, I can’t see many CEOs refusing cost-saving initiatives that prefer algorithms to people. But is it only low-paying jobs that would be subsumed by software? Apparently not. Last year, the Economist predicted that relatively high wage earners like accountants, real estate agents, and even commercial pilots would lose their jobs (and incomes) to software in the next two decades. And if there is no need for accountants, then think of all those business schools having to reinvent themselves. Are they planning for this eventuality now?

If this is the road we’re heading down, how can we prevent the predictable social unrest that will result from wide-scale unemployment? Accordingly to Bill Gates, governments will need to get business on side. This is particularly relevant in Hungary where taxes are so onerous that employing people is a very expensive venture. I asked a number of business owners what it would cost to hire one employee and pay them a net salary of 100 000 huf – the answer was the same from everyone – double. Is it any wonder that the gray economy is alive and well here?

Were I up for re-election or even hoping to unseat the incumbent ruling party, I’d be thinking of substantially reducing (or even doing away with) employment taxes. I’d be doing everything I could to incentivise companies to employ more people so that we could reach a state of full employment where everyone who can work is working and paying the appropriate taxes.  But then again, I’m not a politician.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 March 2014