Many experts studying the topic of automation believe that the current rate of advancement is leading us into a future with fewer and fewer available jobs.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
In his 2013 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” David Graeber argued that in the wake of automation, we created employment for employment’s sake, not necessarily to fulfill any significant task or purpose. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation would create a 15-hour work week for everyone in Britain and the United States. Graeber argues that we failed to live up to this prediction, not because of a failure of automation, but because of the fear of the social effects that would occur when large numbers of people had large amounts of unstructured time.
In our current system, higher unemployment rates mean an unstable economy. We are constantly looking for ways to “put people back to work.” Oftentimes, however, the employment those people find is unsatisfying.
In 2014, the Conference Board Job Satisfaction Survey reported, for the eighth time in a row, that less than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs.
As technology progresses, indications are that “putting people back to work” will become less feasible. Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have charted what they refer to as “the great decoupling.” They have found that productivity, or output per hour of work, has quadrupled since 1947 in the United States while employment has not risen at nearly the same rate. What this means is that many companies are producing more goods and services without having to employ more people.
Other research suggests in the next 15 to 20 years, 45 percent of all existing employment will become automated. Even more startling, there’s little to suggest new jobs will be created at the pace necessary to compensate for this loss.
To date, a lot people had only two options for work: income and dissatisfaction, or no income and freedom. Neither of these are particularly appealing.
Larry Page offers a solution: “Work less,” which would certainly reduce the amount of time people spent on unsatisfactory jobs and provide more opportunities for people to pursue their true interests.
During a fireside chat as part of an Executive Program at Singularity University last November, Ray Kurzweil pointed out that with the advances in technology so far, “more people can do what they have a passion for,” as opposed to being locked into jobs that do not interest them or fully employ all of their potential.
Kurzweil himself is an example of this: “I have no intention of retiring anytime soon,” he says. “Or another way of looking at it: I actually did retire when I was five, and decided to do what I wanted to do.”
Automation can also provide part of the solution to the problem of income as well. As Kurzweil says, “I’m actually not worried about it because it’s going to ultimately be very easy and require a very small fraction of our output to support all the material needs of the human race.” This would require a lot less capital to achieve a high standard of living.
How we would get to that point is a topic of much debate, but if Kurzweil’s track record on predicting the future of technology is any indicator, it’s where we’re headed.
Moreover, if Kurzweil is representative of how even a fraction of people would fill their time when they are no longer engaged in meaningless employment, then the future seems likely to be filled with even more innovations and even more creative achievements. “Do you think innovation is going to stop?” asks Kurzweil. “It’s going to explode.”
If that prediction holds any merit, then imagine the leaps we would make if every 9-to-5 laborer who watched Star Trek growing up was working on making warp speed a reality.
This innovation isn’t restricted to the tech world either. As technology has replaced jobs requiring repetitive labor , we’ve seen an explosion in the diversity of creative output in the world.
There’s been an unparalleled rise in the variety of music genres created in the last 100 years, never mind the amount of actual music produced. More art exists in the world (and some of it actually good) than has ever existed. Fewer people behind a desk, or the wheel of a big rig, means more potential makers.
Automation certainly won’t mean the death of human work. In the best of all possible worlds, it will mean an end to work that is unfulfilling. For some that would mean time spent creating and inventing, for others that might mean a lot of time spent playing with all those new creations and inventions, which is kind of the point.
Kurzweil is proof that passion produces productivity, as is almost every prolific artist, writer, musician and entrepreneur. Fulfilling work makes itself worthwhile. And usually it produces pretty amazing things. Not only that, but the ingenuity that makes automation possible will also make innovation better.
Karl Marx described his ideal society as one “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished… to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”
Automation allows for the possibility of exactly this type of diversification of interests, without the violence and upheaval usually associated with the attempts to get there.
Additionally, technology will only accelerate our capacity to pursue diverse of interests. The Internet has already democratized information, allowing many to become experts in fields in which they have no formal education or training. The future of technology may allow for each of us to become masters in many fields, expanding the abilities of our bodies and our minds.
It’s very difficult to actually predict what a world filled with people loosed from the reins of predefined labor could or would create; however, there is a lot to suggest we should be optimistic about such a transformative shift.
The developments and innovations produced by passion, and aided by technology, have stretched the imagination. From the realization of many concepts formerly considered science fiction, to the creation of new forms of art, we already stand in awe of what passion and innovation can achieve.
Just imagine a world where that output is expanded exponentially.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock