Posts in Future

Why We Should Be Worried About Robots Taking Over Our Jobs

What will happen to our jobs with the advance of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)? It could be to our advantage; we could have robots doing all the work we humans find boring, and free more of our time to focus on the more creative and satisfying work. I talk about how beneficial it could be in a previous article . However, it could turn into a nightmare (for a large portion of society) if we don’t plan and organise for this new technological revolution.

Technological advancement is not a new phenomenon

First of all, this is not a new phenomenon. The human race has gone through technological revolutions before, the most drastic being the industrial revolution. Jobs were destroyed, and many others created. For example, the blacksmith and many other craftspeople were replaced by factory workers. At a later stage, rail road workers lost their jobs with the invention of the automobile; however, many more jobs were created, such as car mechanics and car manufacturers. In this new A.I. era, new jobs will be and are being created to off-set the lost jobs, just as in the past.  To name a few examples, remote controlled vehicle controllers, personalised health care specialists, big data analysts, and online chaperones to assist small businesses manage online risks. Jobs we cannot even predict will come to be/evolve, the same way we could not predict the job of a software engineer during the industrial revolution. In addition, humans will be preferred for jobs that require creativity and human empathy, such as healthcare and entertainment.

There are significant benefits to technological advances

It is also important to note that the industrial revolution has led to a much more comfortable life for millions of people. It is now the norm, at least in the developed world, to have running water and electricity in our homes. Transportation is smooth and comfortable.

So why should we be worried about this new technological era?

It took over a century of pain for most of the world to start reaping the benefits of the industrial revolution, and a lot of wars. The working class in the first industrialising countries, the current developed world, were uprooted from their rural life and forced to work in factories under appalling working conditions. It was even more difficult for the rest of the world, which was mostly colonised by the first industrial countries.

In addition, there have been negative consequences that are still impacting us till the present day. Despite the improved accessibility to modern day comforts, many people are not benefiting from it.

The gap between the rich and poor is at the highest it has ever been in history. One per cent of the world’s population owns more than 50% of the world’s wealth, while almost two thirds of the adult population (64%) have to survive on 1.9% of the global wealth[1]. It is true that poor people in modern times are not suffering as much as they were during the era of the industrial revolution, but that is a very low bar to compare to/measure against. Industrial laborers at that time were working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, in terrible working conditions, for very low pay.

Assembly line in a factory
Assembly line in a factory

Link between technological advance and inequality

What is the link between growing inequality and advancements in technology? Even though technological progress can raise labour productivity, i.e. help people produce more, it can also, at some point in the advancement process, make it easier for corporations to substitute people for machines. This allows for greater concentration of income and wealth.

Advancements in A.I. could lead to the same outcome, albeit more amplified, if we do not regulate it. If corporations, which control the vast majority of wealth and resources in the world, start replacing people with robots, with no system in place to regulate this, we will end up with even more inequality and exclusion. Many workers and employees will become redundant as their skills will no longer be needed. In addition, a huge portion of the new generation will struggle even more than the present one to secure paid work, due to an education system that does not prepare them for higher skilled jobs. This second scenario will be more prevalent in the developing world.

The low skilled are already facing huge difficulties surviving on their incomes. Their skills are not worth very much in the market. What will happen to these people when their skills are worth even less because it is cheaper to use A.I.?

Can we afford to have another century of pain before most of the world start benefiting from this amazing technology? Will that be tolerated by the losers? Especially in a world where we are much more interconnected than the past? Can we afford more violence, more revolutions, more ‘illegal’ immigration, more terrorism?

What can we do to avoid and revert this inequality?

We need to put systems in place to ensure people are not excluded and also to ensure that everyone benefits in this new era, not just a select few. So what kind of systems do we need?

First, we need to create education systems that prepare the new generation for this new fast-changing economy through teaching them ‘how to learn’. We also need our education systems to address the re-skilling needs of the current labour force through continuous adult education, if we are to avoid excluding a large portion of the population from contributing to society. At present, the labour force that is made redundant is largely forced into idleness and poverty. Educating the new generation and re-skilling people to perform new jobs is no easy task, nor is it cheap.

The other required system is a bit trickier. We need a system that will factor in the shorter amount of time we will need to get the work done while allowing everyone to benefit. If A.I. can help us do our jobs faster, then we need to allow for substantially shorter working hours and time off. The alternative would be to hire fewer people to do the same work. Effectively that would mean making some people redundant, and making those that still have jobs work as long as they do now. Or alternatively, maintain the same workforce at the same level of effort and create unnecessary jobs.

Inequality
Inequality courtesy of Nate Cohen

What does history tell us about how we deal with technology and work?

Strangely enough history shows us that the second path has been the pattern humanity has taken so far as we progress technologically – creating unnecessary jobs. That is of course after laying off people in the short term once machines can do their jobs.

In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin predicted we would soon work a 4-hour week. The nineteenth century economist Peter Kropotkin deducted that we should be able to cover all our needs by working 4-5 hours a day, which could be further reduced by technological innovations. Bernard Shaw predicted we would work a 2-hour day by 2000. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicated a 4-hour work week in the near future. In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, and a 14- hour week by 2000. In the 1960s, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.

However, as we can all see, that did not happen. We are now working longer hours than the two generations before us. Technology was supposed to liberate us from the daily drudgery, but in effect/fact we are working longer hours than the two generations before us and rarely have the opportunity to switch off. In 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed[2]. In 2005 the UK government admitted a sharp increase in excessive working hours. Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) research found that one in six employees now work more than sixty hours a week[3]. A far cry from the predictions made by the generations before us.  

This is despite the fact that many studies demonstrate that working excessive hours is counterproductive. After a certain number of working hours, the level of productivity drops. Moreover, the expected working hours of modern life ‘work ethic’ is causing high levels of stress that the human body is unable to deal with, and thus it is making us sick and sometimes even kills us[4].

Burnt out employee
Burnt out employee courtesy of Bruce Mars

What have we got to show for all this work?

Are we all living in lavish luxury? Have we eliminated poverty from the planet? Are we providing food and healthcare for everyone? Far from it. Nearly half of the world’s population – more than 3 billion people – live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty – less than $1.25 a day[5], and 22,000 children die each day due to poverty[6].

So where is all our effort going if we are working harder than the two generations before us? It seems we must be wasting our time since we do not have much to show for it, or at least nothing very useful to show. The avant garde visionary thinker, Buckminister Fuller, commented on this phenomenon in 1981, claiming that 70% of US jobs were unnecessary, such as inspectors of inspectors, people making instruments for inspectors of inspectors, re-underwriters of insurance reinsurers, obnoxious promoters….etc.

Fuller’s insight into this strange phenomenon hits upon the root cause for this. As a human race we have a false idea that “everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist”[7].

The absurdity of wasting time and life
The Persistence of Memory by Dali
(My interpretation – the absurdity of wasting time and life)

 

So now what?

How do we avoid following the same pattern of the past that has led us to excessive inequality, sickness and death?

A paradigm shift in our belief system needs to happen in order to implement the two systems mentioned above regarding the way we organise education and work at a global level. A paradigm shift in the values that underpin our economic system needs to take place. We need to re-think and redefine what we mean by “work ethic”. We need to take a deep questioning look at our need to justify our existence through excessive work, even when this work is not needed. We need to take a hard look at how we decide who is deserving of support from society. And most importantly we need to think deeply about how we distribute our resources.

In effect, changing the way we organise ourselves around education and work is a redistribution of wealth. This is a controversial topic for most people and highly emotionally charged. That is why we need to envisage how this new system will make us all live richer lives (Please see my article on how this new system could work for all of us)

 

[1] According to Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report 2018: https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/research/research-institute/global-wealth-report.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/15/is-28-hours-ideal-working-week-for-healthy-life

[3]https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/system/files/resources/files/errs16_main.pdf; The Idler, Spring 2005, Issue 35, p.39

[4] https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/healthreport/workplace-stress-unhealthy-secondhand-smoke-pfeffer/6927786

[5] United Nations Development Programme. “Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.” Human Development Report, 2014.

[6] United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME). “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A promise renewed.” UNICEF, 2014.

[7] 1970 New York magazine “Environmental Teach-In

Why We Should Love The Idea Of Robots Taking Over Our Jobs

This is a topic that creates a lot of controversy and stirs a lot of feelings, mainly fear. Why are we so afraid of robots taking over our jobs? The obvious reason and argument against new technology is what will we do as human beings if artificial intelligence or robots become capable of doing our work?! And how will we make an income? I see the logic and I can sense the fear behind it. I understand it. However, I think this argument is one sided. It does not capture the amazing possibilities that a world with robots can provide for us.

What kind of jobs are robots going to take over

First of all, let’s think about what jobs machines and robots are going to take over. Do we think they are going to take over the jobs children dream of doing when they grow up? Astronauts, musicians, doctors, nurses, and singers? Do we think they are going to take over the jobs that grownups day dream of doing when they have saved up enough money to leave their day job or have paid off their mortgage? Writing about the fantasy world that he has dreamed up in his mind while sitting at his desk in the office. Starting her own business that will solve one of the world problems. Traveling around the world making films that portray the reality she wants to show the world. Going back to school so he can come up with a new technology that will give people back their legs or arms that were amputated. Creating the best menu the world has ever seen.

I don’t know what you think, but I don’t believe machines and robots are going to take over these kinds of jobs. They will definitely help us, but not take them over. And these are the jobs that people want to do. These are the jobs that more and more people will be able to do if we free up their time, if we free up their minds to focus on their dreams.

Currently, most people are focused on making a living not a life. They are focused on their daily jobs which usually entail long hours energy draining tasks. Let’s think about the jobs that people don’t want to do. Have you ever asked a child what she wants to do when she grows up and got the response “public toilet cleaner”! or cleaning other people’s houses, or factory worker that spends long days on an assembly line, or a civil servant that reviews papers all day long to check all the forms are filled out with people’s data?

toilet cleaner
toilet cleaner

 

Again, I don’t know about you, but I have never received these responses from children nor have I heard of anyone else that has received these responses. I will take it a step further. I think there are jobs that we do like doing that have a lot of tasks attached to them that we don’t want to do. Why don’t we want to do them? Because they are boring and very time consuming and take away from the time we could be spending on coming up with creative solutions.

A real life example

Let me give you an example from my life. I design and manage projects. I used to do this full time. The design part is very interesting and mentally stimulating. This part of my job keeps me motivated. However, there are big parts of my job that I don’t like doing. Mainly boring work that is made even more boring and time consuming by a very user-unfriendly system that I have to use to record everything in multiple forms. And when those parts start to constitute the majority of my work I feel drained. I start to lose my motivation. I stop putting forth creative ideas to make my projects better, because I either don’t have them anymore or I just can’t take on any more work. The worst consequence for me is that I start to feel completely detached from the people I am supposed to be helping.

This is how I think a robot will help me and others that have similar jobs. A robot or a machine could be responsible for the clerical tasks. A robot could take data that I have already recorded in one place and record it in different formats or systems. That would free up my time to work on the more interesting part – the design and implementation of the project, and interaction with people – or to take time off!

Do people really want to do boring work?

You might say some people actually like doing clerical work. They like it because its mentally non-demanding and thus soothing. While some people want to do this work, so they can get a foot in the organisation and learn and make their way up.

True. I agree with that argument. However, I still think we would be better off if this was a choice. Let me explain by looking at both types of people. First the ones that like clerical work because its soothing. These people normally take on jobs that are not very mentally demanding because they want to get out of the house, meet people, belong to an organisation, and of course make an income. These people do not want to do this kind of work in huge quantities. They are human beings, they may have a higher tolerance than others for monotonous tasks, but I don’t believe they want to do very much of it. Only passion driven people want to do a lot of work.

Let’s look at the second type of person. This person is only performing a task as an entry point to move up the ladder. What if we gave people the opportunity to come into our organisations with a slightly more motivating task to prove themselves? Would that not be a win-win situation?

This is why I think it would be amazing if we could get robots to do these tasks. wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to ask real people to do them? If we did not organize ourselves as a society whereby some people, actually most people, have to work at jobs that are killing their soul? You may think that the expression “killing their soul” is an exaggeration, but I believe that is what these kinds of jobs do to people that are forced to perform them years on end because they have no other option if they are to earn an income.

What do we do with people that are not skilled?

I hear you say, what if these people don’t have the brains to do anything else? What if these mind-numbing jobs are the only contribution they could possibly give society?

I have two things to say on that. First, I don’t believe this kind of work would be the only function any human being would have to offer society. I believe everyone has talents, we are just not very good as a society at helping people identify them and cultivating them. Second, let’s suppose that I am wrong, and some people are completely lacking in talent and abilities. My question to you is this: is this the way we want to treat them as a global community? Punish them because they have fewer abilities and talents?

In the past, before we had our modern technology, I can see how the answer would be yes. Not out of spite or evilness, but out of necessity. As I mentioned, we would not be able to live our comfortable lives if no one was cleaning our streets, if no one was at the assembly lines day in day out manufacturing our cars, clothes, TVs, phones…. the list is endless. But now we have the technology, or at least we are getting there.

Amazon delivery drone
Amazon delivery drone

For the first time in history we have a way out of subjecting people to slavery. Instead of responding with celebration, we are responding with terror! We are scared a machine will take away these jobs no one wants to do.

What about the elephant in the room – income!

Now let’s face the elephant in the room. Income. Money. If a robot can do my job, what am I going to do? I won’t have a job. No one will hire me. The companies we work for will lay off most of their employees and buy robots to do the work. And all those employees and workers will be sitting at home with no income to live. They may even lose their homes if they are renting or still paying mortgage. Disaster.

If this is the way we respond as a society then yes that is a scary scenario. But does it have to be like that? Can’t we think of a better way to respond so we can actualize the amazing possibilities?

Would it be possible to perhaps have workers and employees work less time?

Would it be possible as a society to help the people that lose their jobs to robots to learn new skills?

Would it be possible that we as a society support those people while they learn new skills and figure out what to do, even if that takes years?

If we are able to produce the same amount of goods with much less manpower, are we not richer as a society? Doesn’t that mean we have the same amount of goods, clothes, cars, trains, food, electronics…etc with fewer people working? In which case, why add insult to injury by punishing those that have lost their jobs?

Alternative vision for the future

Maybe we should think more seriously about sending cheques out in the post to everyone to cover basic expenses.

The economists and the financiers might think this sounds crazy. Paying people that are sitting at home doing nothing?! Paying people that are not contributing to our production?!  Our economy will collapse! But let’s look at the picture holistically. What are the benefits? Less petty crime by people that are hungry. Less costly health care for stress, depression and alcoholism. Less bureaucracy to figure out who to pay and who not to. I would even dare say less terrorism. Combating these problems costs money. LOADS of money. And then there are the intangibles. Peaceful society. Happy society. Time for creativity.

I believe in the human spirit. I believe if a person is given a chance, they normally make something out of it. I don’t think the majority of us want to sit at home and receive handouts endlessly. Once our basic needs of food and shelter are met, we start looking to fulfill our deeper desires as humans, our desire to achieve, our desire for knowledge, our desire for recognition, our desire to contribute and belong to a community.

better world for all of us
better world for all of us

Imagine a world where everyone has the chance to fulfill these desires. Don’t you think dear reader that it would be a better world for all of us?