Future of Work (Pt. 1)

The future of work will likely look dramatically different from anything humanity has ever known. Major changes could portend major growing pains. This three part series looks at two troubling trends in motion and proposes a path forward.

The Robots are Coming - No Really

“Just as mechanical muscles made human labor less in demand, so are mechanical minds making human brain labor less in demand. This is an economic revolution. You may think we’ve been here before but we haven’t. This time it’s different.” (1)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Baxter, the trainable, general-purpose robot who’s near-future firmware updates may include mind reading and costs just $22,000 - less than half of the 2015 median US salary. Or perhaps you’ve watched a youtube video of Boston Dynamics’ eerily virile Atlas or Handle.

As impressive and even foreboding as these current demonstrations of automation may be, it’s inherently difficult to imagine and predict the effects of automation over time. There’s an inclination to simplify this phenomenon to the slow and gradual end of blue collar work, hopefully balanced by a matching number of jobs in the tech industry, arts, or some other sector. This is, unfortunately, wishful thinking.

“There isn’t a rule of economics that says ‘better technology makes more better jobs for horses.’ It sounds shockingly dumb to even say that out loud. But swap ‘horses’ for ‘humans’ and people think it sounds about right.” (2)

Given that white collar jobs are more prevalent and more expensive than blue collar jobs, there is actually more incentive for companies to automate these roles than those of blue collar work. In reality, the number of jobs to disappear by 2030 may be as high as 50%, including many jobs in currently celebrated professions such as doctors, lawyers and computer programmers.

For reference, the unemployment rate at the height of the great depression was 25%. (Note: unemployment and job attrition figures are not the same of course, but clearly connected)

“Autos” do not need to sleep, take breaks, or need be psychologically or emotionally engaged. They perform predetermined tasks with inhuman degrees of accuracy in a fraction of the time required by their human counterparts. This much we’re familiar with. Thanks to deep learning algorithms in conjunction with seamless access to world-wide networks and databases, however, autos can now teach themselves and each other how to creatively solve new problems that humans never have.

“The usual argument is that the unions will prevent it, but history is filled with workers who fought technology that would replace them and the workers always lose. Economics always wins, and there are huge incentives across wildly diverse industries to adopt autos.” (3)

The effects of automation on the workforce will not happen all at once, but will continue at an increasingly fast rate. Each new breakthrough in technology necessarily paves the way for the following breakthrough to happen just a little bit faster than the last time, and for a little bit less money. Moreover, the most important technologies required for this transition are not science fiction. They’re already here. It’s simply a matter of time before we see rapid adoption for the sake of corporate competition and profit. We would be wise to start discussing and designing now a graceful means to transition into such a future.

Hey You, Do Something!

Assuming we don’t want to wait for the the automation trend to reach full stride before we’re at least more prepared as a society (or wait for autos to gain super-human intelligence and decide our fate for us), what are our options?

It’s not politics as usual. Chances are that regardless of your political orientation you don’t trust at least half of US policy-makers to elegantly handle a situation this complex. You could hope for a favorable influx of politicians in the next midterm and 2020 presidential election, but “favorable” for you and yours likely means “unfavorable” to many others. Given the reductive nature of partisan dialogue, it’s questionable that even a well-presented solution would gain enough traction to pass through the required channels to become law. Supposing the US or any other major economic presence did pass strong regulatory legislation, there's still trends in the rest of the world market to consider.

The onus for a solution seems to be placed on the civilian workforce, and the task at hand clearly requires unprecedented creativity and collaboration.

For any solution to mass-unemployment and societal restructuring to be adopted, it has to be attractive enough in the short term to a lot of people. Even then, as history is replete with examples, ideas that benefit the many but hurt the few in power frequently encounter fatal resistance.

So how you get a highly-preoccupied population, many of whom are soon to be out of a job, some of whom may be out of a career, to cooperate in the production of a solution to an unprecedented problem?

 

Corey Morrow