June 2, 2017

On robots, economic unrest and your job

Rethinking our relationship with productivity in the light of technological acceleration.

Once upon a time, the privileged elite would flaunt their impractical clothing and untanned skin to show how little they needed to work. It was leisure, not labour, that was the mark of success.

These days, the trend has reversed. Those who don’t work are shunned and considered lazy, while constant busy-ness is a sign of importance. This is the lure of productivity: when our social value is equated with our economic output, who wouldn’t want to get more done?

The danger is that we could be on the brink of something that will disrupt our value system completely. If we properly prepare, this could be an escape from drudgery and an opportunity for human creativity to flourish. If we don’t, we could face a future of immense social and economic unrest.

I’m talking about technological automation. It’s no secret that technological progress is accelerating, and with recent advances in Deep Learning, we are finding again and again that computers are capable of performing abstract and creative tasks we thought unique to humans. The reality is that computers can perform faster, cheaper and with fewer errors than a human worker, and with businesses constantly looking to maximise prodictivity, it seems inevitable that more and more of us will be replaced by machines. And it’s not just truck drivers who need to worry; many white-collar industries such as radiology and investment banking are currently in the firing line. In fact, a research paper from 2013 suggested that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of being automated within 20 years.

What, then, do we do with all the people who are out of work through no fault of their own? Retrain them? Robots will soon come for their new job. Let them starve for their failure to contribute? I hope not.

This is where we need to rethink our relationship with work. Our current tendancy to so strongly equate a meaningful life with economic output causes people to assume that a life without work would be miserable and unfulfilling. But we need to realise that we can be productive in so many other ways.

Art, music, science, knowledge, altruism, family, friendship, travel and philosophy are all endevours that take time and effort and often have little financial compensation, yet are amongst the most valuable ways we can spend our time. If we are wise, we can shape a society where more people than ever have the resources to indulge in these activities, while a robot economy takes care of the menial tasks necessary for our survival.

So how do we get to this utopia?

  1. We need to explore different economic models that will sustain a society where machines do the bulk of the labour, such as Universal Basic Income. If society is more productive due to machine labour, by definition we should have more resources to support humans. However, we need to ensure these resources are distributed fairly and sustainably, and that the benefits are not only reaped by a privileged few.
  2. We need to stop valuing economic productivity above all other kinds of productivity. We need to realise there are many meaningful ways to spend time other than what we traditionally think of as work’. We need to stop using GDP as a proxy for a country’s success, and realise that it says nothing about important factors such as the distribution of wealth or happiness across citizens.
  3. Research suggests that once your household income is above $75,000/£58,000 (note this is household income, so far a working couple this would be a salary of $37,500/£29,000) there is no significant increase in happiness from earning more money. If this is you, you will probably be better off focusing your productivity efforts on all the other things that make life worthwhile, rather than chasing higher pay. If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend looking up the Effective Altruism movement.

As a techno-optimist, I believe that with a bit of wisdom and foresight we can use technological progress for the benefit of humanity. But we have a lot of preparation to do, and it starts with rethinking what we value about productivity.

Updated Jul, 21 2020