“In human history, there have been three great technological revolutions and many smaller ones. The three great ones are the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the one we are now in the middle of—the software revolution. […] It appears that the software revolution will do what technology usually does—create wealth but destroy jobs.”
– Sam Altman, “The Software Revolution”
A lot has been said and written about the great recession, the rise of the robot economy and the loss of jobs (or the creation of them in the new sharing economy – nobody is really sure yet). Let’s take a step back and get some perspective:
“Coming out the recession” and “Economic recovery”
What I think those people (and governments) who say this don’t realize is, that the jobs that were destroyed in the recession, are not going to come back. Because just like individuals, businesses too found ways of making ends meet during the hard times. This surge in demand for more cost effective labor was met by increased automation. And jobs that were automated then are not likely to come back now.
On the other hand, for decades science fiction movies and books have painted a promising picture of a utopian future where machines would do all the work and we humans would engage ourselves in higher pursuits. Yet, here we are, wanting to get our jobs back from the machines.
At the same time, we are heading towards a global workforce crisis by 2030.
Something doesn’t add up.
The Dignity of Wage
Maybe the answer is in what I call “the dignity of wage”. It’s the same reason why people are driven to crime. Our modern economy is robbing people of the opportunities to make money, while at the same time the media constantly bombards them with the notion of spending it. I believe many of the prisoners (who, by the way, in some places outnumber students) would be willing to mend their ways, if only society would give them a fair chance at earning a decent living for themselves and their families. People need something to do, to give meaning to their lives.
Especially in a society and value system in which the education and value system is so heavily employability oriented.
Maybe it’s time for a political debate on Basic Income.
“Humans will be able to move up to more ‘creative’ jobs…”
“…while machines will do the more routine ones”. The problem with creativity is, it’s not for everyone. Neither are tech jobs. Both require a certain mindset that takes years of training to master. Finally, “higher” creative jobs are only relative to “lower” mundane jobs. If all jobs became equally creative, people would have nothing to aspire to. We will be back to square one. For example, The Netherlands’s success is based on acknowledging this distinction.
Automation or Population: Pick One
There are some other longer-term issues with our current employment scenario. Life on this planet is heavily dependent on two things: oil, which we are rapidly running out of, and electricity, which, if disrupted, could instantly send us back to the stone age. Collectively as a civilization, we are not very well prepared for large-scale change.
This planet is currently on an unsustainable trajectory. And automation is only unbalancing our society more. In order to ensure continued “dignity of wage” we need to either limit automation, or limit our population. The reason is that automation is that it can transcend international borders without a visa, but human beings can not.
Sometimes this leads to strange side effects. When I was in Bangalore, the parking lot at my office had a security guard who would flag you down while entering and note down the vehicle’s registration number. Years later, someone decided it would be a good idea to install an automated parking gate, as seen around Europe and North America. I’m not sure what they were thinking, but then we had 3 security guards instead of one: one to press the button on the gate since it was installed too high up to be reachable by drivers of average Indian height in average Indian cars, one to make a manual note in the register as a back up, and a third to supervise over the first two.
Which brings me to the next point: Any transaction that involves a human being is inherently potentially flawed. No amount of automation will make our world perfect or optimal, as long as it’s still “our world”.
The tobacco industry employs more than a 100 million people worldwide. If we want to create more jobs, we should all smoke more cigarettes. By extension, conflict has traditionally been the biggest source of employment: In research, manufacturing, exports, destroying settlements, and providing private security while rebuilding them. As a Green Beret recently pointed out, in today’s job market a Special Forces training is better than an MBA.
So there you have it, the solution to all our economic problems is perpetual war.
Endnote: You really should read the link about the rise of the robot economy.
Update 2015-05-25: More food for thought: Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck