work future

Future of Work

This is the last chapter of my book. To those who have read this far, I am forever grateful. (If anyone wants to read the Introduction and Conclusion, just leave me a comment and I’ll email it to you. For now, I won’t be posting it online.)

Sub-chapter #20, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


 

A FUTURE OF WORK

Last but not least, what might become of our jobs? If we play our cards right, one day in the near, or far, future, jobs—as we know them today—will become obsolete. Let’s find out why, and why this will be a good thing, perhaps the best thing to ever happen to humanity.

We are partway through a trend that once concluded, will result in a new renaissance (last time, I promise). An event that will be remembered for all time as the defining point when the potential of our creativity was unbounded by the limits of society and a new global culture was born.

First off, a bit of history. For all of humanity’s existence, we’ve had to work to survive, just as all other animals do. Whether that meant hunting for food, tending to crops, trading for goods, foods, or gold, and so on until we find ourselves working the 9-to-5 in the here and now—well, the lucky amongst us. By the way, this is how work will change. It will move from becoming a necessity to a leisure.

During this epoch, a trend has slowly, quietly and unnoticed, unfurled in the background: the ratio of man-hours relative to productivity or work done. From the start of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a span just shy of some seven-thousand years (depending on which history book you read), this ratio has stayed fairly constant. That is, the amount of man-hours vs. work accomplished didn’t deviate far from the historical norm.

Of course, civilization still prospered in some cases and progress was evident. This progress, while not increasing the work done per person, increased the quantity of workers in a concentrated area, often resulting in slavery, the moral black mark on our history, and all those extra hands were able to carry out those gigantic tasks, such as building Rome, Washington DC, and other such cities of antiquity. Though contrary to popular belief, the pyramids of Egypt were not built by slaves, but paid Egyptian laborers.

When the Industrial Revolution kicked off in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, this ratio started positively increasing. That is, the same amount of man-hours constituted increased work, otherwise known as Productivity Growth (PG). This was due to the machines and industrial processes created: steam engines, coal plants, light bulbs, medicines, and factories that became extensions of our hands and minds allowing us to work smarter, travel farther, more productively, and in better health.

This trend is responsible for almost everything we have today. Technology started replacing human labor and this trend has continued to this day, allowing us to have that little thing we call comfort, and this trend, unhindered, will continue to progress further and exponentially faster with time as it has been since it began. None of the tragedies of the 20th century even put a dent in exponential increase of computational progress—that includes WW1, WW2, The Great Depression, and others.

We went from manual labor farming to horse-drawn ploughs to tractors, to automatic irrigation and soon to underground farming. From hauling stone slabs on sleds, to the wheel, to the horse-drawn cart, to the electrical car, to the internal combustion engine, and hopefully back to the electric car soon. I know what you’re thinking, yes the electric car was invented first and these are just a few examples among many thousands.

This positive increase, or negative depending on your viewpoint (either short or long-term), which depends on the type of job you have, has an ugly consequence. People have been losing their jobs for the last 150 years as machines replaced their profession; from the elevator man to the soot-shoveler, to the autoworker to many, many others.

Though so far, there has been a technological caveat. As society has progressed, new jobs have been created, continuing economic expansion. However, this trend of new jobs replacing old jobs is beginning to stutter. In 1993, there were 194 million Americans in the labor force, and by 2000, this number had increased to 213 million. During these eight years, 22.7 million jobs were added along with the 19 million new workers leaving a surplus of 3.7 million jobs. Between 2001 and 2008, labour participation went from 215 million to 234 million people, but with only two million jobs added in that same time period. A deficit of 13.7 million jobs, and since 2008, we have lost just over half-a-million more jobs (4.317 million lost vs. 3.765 million regained in mid-2012). So the total deficit is 14.25 million jobs, and this is just in nineteen-years.

Every month, the labor force expands by approximately 125,000 people due to population growth, so that’s 125,000 new jobs that the economy needs to add, just to keep the unemployment rate steady. By 2050, the labour force is projected to be 45% larger than today, or approximately 339 million people. That’s more than 100 million new jobs that need to be added by then, just in the USA. In the rest of the world, the population is projected to increase by at least two-billion, and perhaps three-billion according to UN projections. Where are the jobs going to come from? From nowhere it seems.

Counter to the population increase, the technology we are creating (and which shows no sign of stopping but increasing) is only getting exponentially better, smaller, and smarter to the point where it will literally be able to out-think and out-flex us. This shift, this realignment, this relentless progression of automation will continue until the only thing left for the human mind to do will be to wonder, imagine, and explore the Universe—which also happens to be the things that we are best at. Eating, drinking, and sex not withstanding!

[Carl] Bass points out that we are now at a great inflection point in the automation of labor. Extraordinary breakthroughs in the areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing are all converging upon one another yielding a world full of technologies plucked right from the world of science fiction.” [Emphasis mine] ~ Aaron Frank (Writer)

We are going through an epoch unseen before in human history. We are in the midst of transitioning from a manual-labor society to a knowledge-generating, machine-operated society. We‘re currently in the transition period, because as is plainly obvious, we still have billions of people working, though many of them struggling to scratch a living out what they are given, or able to take. But the underlying trend is undeniable.

But there are those who wish to roll back the dial, or want to stop the buck here creating a static society. Of course, being oblivious to the fact that every static society has collapsed, because problems invariably crop up and a static society cannot hope to innovate their way out of them. The American economist Robert Solow earned a Nobel Prize for showing that economic growth does not come from people working harder, I.e, just working longer hours, but from working smarter. By getting more from less, and in the process freeing up time to do other things impossible beforehand. Stopping or slowing technological growth, and implementing employment for employments sake is a straight path to disaster, reminiscent of 20th century communism.

Back to basics. The reasons for the increasing mechanization in society are simple. It costs much less to have a machine do a person’s work than a person, especially with the increasing cost of labor, and companies having to contend with trillions of new currency units floating around the world and doing everything in their power to not raise their prices, so they decrease costs. Machines have no health insurance bills, don’t get sick, need vacation days, smoke breaks, and aren’t distracted by their inner monologue, along with various other factors that retard productivity. These are all ancillary reasons, however. Many of the background processes of our world today can only be done by machines and  artificial intelligence, such as aviation, computer science, heavy industry, and even in finance.

While the main rationale often used to replace a person with a machine is to improve a company’s profit margin and time to market, and not the automation of society, does not make the result of these decisions any less real (or inevitable).

In the past, as people have become displaced from one profession, they have moved to other professions that could not be automated or that were created due to new technologies invented.

In the twentieth century, as manufacturing jobs were becoming mechanized, factory workers moved en masse into the services sector. For the last fifty-odd-years, the services sector has exploded, most notably in the USA, but also in much of the developed world, be it the restaurant industry, or the financial services world. The services sector is now beginning to bloat, and it simply cannot absorb the mass numbers anymore. Parallel to this, the wheels seem to be coming off the major world economies, and fourteen-million jobs have been lost in the last eleven years alone in the USA, putting an extra squeeze on companies who now see automation as a way to reduce costs and improve their profit margins.

Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple’s iPads and iPhones, are planning on introducing one million robots to replace 100,000 workers in the next three years. The irony in this is that as more and more people are laid off and replaced by machines, the fewer products the company can sell in the long run. For a period of time, the company might improve its profit margins, as the rest of society hasn’t yet succumbed to this transitionary period, but this can only be temporary in nature.

As more and more of society’s jobs are automated—and it will happen one way or the other, for the consequences will be worse than allowing it but I’ll get to that soon—has the effect of removing the employees as consumers from the market. In a free market, employees, consumers, and employers are interchangeable; they are all one and the same. These former employees will no longer have the earnings to buy these increasingly mechanized products or services. Thus, we (theoretically) will reach a point where we can produce almost everything via automation, but there will be no one to buy the products (of course, we’ll never actually get there, as something will give beforehand).

What is going to happen to the millions of factory workers when 3D printing becomes affordable, fully capable, and factories a twentieth century relic? To miners when nanotechnology is economical and we can turn any material into anything else, and build anything we dream of? To farmers when we start growing our food; fruits, vegetables, and IVM underground in luminescent rooms, allowing it to grow at a fraction of the time needed above ground, not to mention land owners (40% of the arable land in the world is used for farming or meat consumption, which will become  essentially valueless), and then to the pesticide companies we’ll have no more use of, as food production now moved underground is out of the reach of insects? Not to mention the transportation companies that ship foods to market, and the factories that wrap and prepare the food?

These are all questions we need to be answering now instead of when the time comes. Otherwise, we’ll do what we always do when we come to something different; we’ll try to destroy it or vote into office, goldfish who want to destroy it for political gain. We aren’t exactly the brightest bunch when it comes to making decisions with our guts, instead of our brains, which is why history so often rhymes. I don’t think that any society could stop it or destroy this trend, even if it tried. If America were to outlaw technological progression, after a little while, the Chinese would be so far ahead that the American people would get shaky feet living under the yoke of a seemingly ever-increasing Godlike country on the other side of the world marching forward. Bullet trains, towering skyscrapers (they’ll be building the worlds tallest tower: almost 3000-feet, in ninety-days around the end of 2012, moon base, space station, electric cars and the list will go on). Short of full-scale nuclear war, or a worldwide dictatorship, the inexorable march of technological progress will continue. However, politics will stand in the way, and that may be a difference of maybe years, or a decade, between the society that was, and the society that will be. In the society that will be, where disease, cancer, and death are all history, a delay of even a few years could mean millions of people who should have lived but came up short. Consider for example, the controversy met with Golden Rice by anti-GMO activists and environmentalists around the world. Golden rice is a strain of rice modified to carry vitamin A (Beta-Carotene). A lack of vitamin A is estimated to kill one to two million people per year, of which 670,000 are children, as well as producing 500,000 cases of blindness, where one cup of golden-rice is enough to supply them enough vitamin A. Rice leaves naturally produce vitamin A due to photosynthesis, but the endosperm (edible part) does not, so scientists transferred two genes to make it do so. The new breed of rice had scientific tests performed, and was found that the vitamin A absorption was as good, or better, than other forms of the supplement. But anti-GMO activists successfully stopped its adoption and distribution to the parts of the world where it would have saved millions of lives per year! Think of the absurdity and stupidity of such a position. We were willing to put two modified genes inside a strain of rice, before the lives of millions of people per year, every year, until the situation is remedied because of some idealistic, bombastic, and shortsighted view of nature. Again, as we saw in the chapter, Future of Food, almost all our food today has been upended from natural selection as it is; it has been shot with radiation, hand-selected for breeding, and saved from extinction because of human intervention. The very process of planting crops is a slap in the face of mother nature, but no one is protesting farms, just the future of food, which they do not understand. And after all this, genetic engineering has not been stopped, nor can it, but the lives of those poor souls were indeed wasted. This is the inherent danger in rolling back or just delaying the wheels of progress; accidental genocide. There are many people who advocate the relinquishment of technological progress (as if such a thing were possible anyway).

The costs of many services, products, and food will continue dropping until one day they hit zero in terms of human energy input, and shortly after, almost zero from a material perspective. Once we are  at that point, we will have a choice to make, the biggest choice any society of humans has ever had to make, and with consequences that will span centuries and affect billions of human lives.

We can transition to a resource-based economy, where people are simply given everything they need or want at no cost since it doesn’t cost anything to produce from a labor standpoint, and with very little energy due to Moore’s Law of energy use—as computers increase in power, doubling every 18 months while halving in size and staying at the same price, the amount of energy consumed by them is going in the opposite direction, e.g., if the 2011 MacBook Air, had the efficiency of a 1991 computer, it’s battery would last all of 2.5 seconds, instead of seven hours. The difference is algorithmic in nature: better, more efficient algorithms doing more work in fewer cycles. What will be the point in money if nothing costs anything?

Or, the elite, or whichever section of upper-society comes into their momentary hold of power, whom are narrowly short-sighted to their own benefit (and think they know better), much as the rest of us are to our own benefit (and think we know better), will invent some other form of currency and keep the charade going round and round, convincing us that it is a necessary function of society to have government and classes. Go watch the movie In Time and you will get an idea of what could pass. I don’t personally think this will happen, but the situation cannot be entirely ruled out in advance, especially given what we’ve fallen for in the past. Just think of the French Revolution, they threw out Louie, and installed Maximilien Robespierre, who gave the world his ‘reign of terror’. Then they threw him out too, and installed the power-hungry Napoleon.

In such a world, where scarcity is no longer a natural function of the world, economies built on scarcity will (or should) break down. The function of price is to assign value to a scarce product; the more expensive the price, the more scarce the product, either by way of overwhelming demand, scarce materials, or high cost of production. Aluminum used to be worth more than gold, even though 8.3% of the Earth’s crust is infused with its ore, but the means of production were amazingly expensive and energy intensive, until electrolysis came along. The sciences and continually improving technologies have been nibbling away at scarce materials and the means of production for the last hundred-fifty years, making once-scarce resources plentiful. It doesn’t matter whether it is food, metals, silicon, electricity, or anything else. You name it; it is more bountiful today than yesteryear (perhaps except human reason).

So when we have the technology to remove the human element and increase yield to such a degree as to remove all elements of scarcity, what purpose will the free market have? What purpose will private industrial property have? Or any (by this point outdated) technology that allows you to have sway over another persons right to life? The key technological trend that has accompanied our evolving society, is that technology is both a resource-liberating force, and a democratizing force du jour. When the gun was invented, the poor peasant suddenly had a way to thwart the armored knight harassing him. Gutenberg’s printing press broke the stranglehold the Catholic Church had established for itself for over a thousand years, and the fax machine broke the Soviet Union’s monoploy on information.

Much in the same way that the threat of violence is illegal in almost all cultures today, so it will be so with the means of production in the future. There will be no benefit for a man or woman to own a technology that holds sway over others save for the sake of power, which may very well come to be regarded as a mental disorder in the future: a disruption to societies balance that cannot and will not be tolerated for the inequality, fear, and violence that may spring forth from it.

Think about crime today, almost all of which is motivated in one way or another, by money. Either directly in the acts of stealing, drug turf wars, or actual wars between nations over resources. Or indirectly, through the emotional suffering inherent in unequal societies, and the stress, cortisol, and lost family time to name a few effects. What will happen to crime? Person-on-person violence is at an all-time low, the twentieth century was the most peaceful century of human history (accounting for both World Wars), as shown by Steven Pinker’s TED talk, The Myth of Violence, and there is no reason, given future projections and technological progression, that it won’t dive even further.

Technology is accelerating at an exponential rate and will continue in such a manner for as long as human co-operation continues. Our current forms of politics, governance, and society cannot, perhaps will not be able to transition into such a futuristic society. We need new ways of governing that don’t conflict with the fast-changing means of production that will start changing in increasingly smaller periods of time, with each cycle bringing with it greater change than the last (the Law of Accelerating Returns).

Transitions are painful, an unfortunate fact of life. Especially for local and linear oriented biological life as are we. Not to mention we don’t deal well with change, which is why we tend to end up in societal systems for far longer than we should, and why history repeats itself with dictators, tyrants, monarchies,  economic fantasies, and republics of the people who end up serving the state first, the people enough to placate, and war after war needlessly conducted to the detriment and distraction of said placated people. As remarks one of America’s literary genius’s, Mark Twain “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” A sad fact of the human condition. However, this will be the first time in the history of civilization that we will truly have an alternative, an option not bound to the fallacies and falsities that are inherently created when millions of people converge on a society with their dreams, desires, ego’s, and jealousies. Once we arrive at that critical juncture, we will have the ability to free everyone from the confines of manual labor and mindless repetitive work and set people free.

We will be able to truly provide everyone on this Earth with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, instead of having them as words on paper paraded through the wheels of time as if they actually meant something.

A common point made in response to such claims, is that people derive meaning and purpose from work. Assuming that in a world where mindless work is not done, people would sit about the couch all day watching television re-runs of an age gone (since apparently people will stop making media). But this is a shortsighted notion. For one, people today do all kinds of things without the incentive of a monetary reward. Wikipedia and Linux are just two visible examples of thousands of volunteers contributing millions of man-hours freely to building something of considerable value. Aside from those, people of all stripes and colors regularly and without want or need of reward regularly read and write books, gather knowledge, learn, collect trinkets and widgets, exercise their body and mind, create art and media, and contribute to many millions of activities and hobbies. In a world free of the unnecessary (and time-sucking) jobs of today, we would have far more energy and time to focus such activities, as well as with our family and friends, and on other efforts we truly enjoy. Lifelong learning may become the new universal occupation.

“The role of work will be to create knowledge of all kinds, from music and art to math and science. The role of play will be, well, to create knowledge, so there won’t be a clear distinction between work and play.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)

There is a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering in this world today, and there probably will be more before this transition is over, and yet more still if we collectively make the wrong choice. Though the pain of this transition, if done right, will be infinitely less than the pain of stopping or rolling back the wheels of progress.

Money may very well be a thing of the past one day. Here is to the future, and to the people and technology that will abolish human suffering once and for all. We can only dream for now, but the future is fast upon us. Without knowledge, wisdom, and a steady resolve, we cannot push into the future for there will always be those holding us back, either for immediate personal gain or an irrational fear of the unknown.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.” ~ Carl Sagan (Astrophysicist)

2 comments

  1. Wow, I doubt I’ll see this utopia, and there have been false dawns before, remember when nuclear power started, we were all going to have free electricity by the year 2000 , however the new technologies are going to have a huge impact and we can but hope this new world comes to pass.

    1. That’s the thing, the fact that there has been false dawns only speaks to our impatience, and in this case, our getting in our own way (at least with nuclear). If you’ve read about the stages of technological reactions, you’ll notice that the reaction to each new technology (hype, disappointment, dismissal, comeback, ubiquitous), is the same as for the totality of technological deployment. We are now, it seems, in the comeback stage. Fun times ahead!

Hit me where it hurts...

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s