The end of work

February 18, 2018

Do job losses and mass poverty have to be consequences of the second machine age?

This article was recently published in German by Forbes. Read the article here.

English version:

Many feel uneasy about the second machine age: Job losses and mass poverty are in the cards. Are they? Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to change society for the better—and empower people to be more than just providers of human labor.

In a giant warehouse, hundreds of them are lined up in neatly organized rows. They are white, faceless and anonymous. The robots in the movie “I, Robot” have just one mission: to serve humans. A piece of software is to ensure that this remains so. But then one of the robots kills the boss of U.S. Robotics, the company that makes them. The movie raises a number of ethical questions: What if robots have emotions? Does this mean we need a new work ethic, or can we continue to treat robots as slaves? What do robots take away from us, and how much control will they gain over our lives?

Does the movie's vision come true where robots are part of our everyday life? Photo © Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment®

Some experts say that one person in two will eventually be replaced by a robot. The International Federation of Robotics reckons that 280,000 industrial robots will be put into operation this year, compared to 250,000 last year. Calls for countermeasures are getting louder: The 30-hour work week should be introduced in an effort to distribute work more equitably. Or a “made by humans” quality seal designating products manufactured by humans, as the International Bar Association, the world's leading organization of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies, suggests in its study on robotics law.

According to the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), four million people in Germany can, at this point in time, be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. This amounts to 15% of those working in jobs where social security contributions are mandatory.

There is no denying that in many settings robots have become colleagues their human counterparts can rely on. They are to be found in laboratories, operating theaters, production facilities and sometimes even hotels such as the Henn'na Hotel in Urayasu, Japan, which is run by robots. There are even robo-strippers—currently, their sole mission is to entertain nerds. Robots serve humans well.

Some prophets of doom say this will not remain so. Once robots replace humans on a large-scale basis, the future looks bleak: Mass unemployment, mass poverty and, in the worst case, economic collapse as a result of insufficient spending power are to be expected. If, on top of that, robots and artificial intelligence develop themselves further and turn against people, humanity will be doomed.

Losing control and losing one's job

This is a profoundly human concern. In reality, people are afraid of technology because they fear that it could lead to them losing control and power. As philosopher Michel Serres, among others, points out, we need to ask ourselves: “Do we become slaves of everything digital?” According to him, it depends on us. And he raises another important issue—the question of whether we are slaves of our language, our writing and the countless devices that surround us. Humans are the masters of technology, as he puts it—robots and algorithms are their servants.

As a result of digitalization, we constantly see new jobs emerge we have not even begun to imagine. Countless start-ups mushroom on technologically fertile soil. What is clear, though, is that they need far fewer employees than businesses in the industries they disrupt normally do. A fintech company can look after as many clients as a bank—with just a fraction of the bank's workforce. Airbnb, for instance, which has served 200 million guests since 2008 and is worth an estimated USD 30 billion, has only about 2000 employees around the globe. By contrast, Hilton, which, at USD 7.8 billion, is the world's most valuable hotel brand, has a global workforce of 170,000.

So the fear of losing one's job is not unwarranted. But seeing only the jobs that get rationalized away as a result of today's sweeping change is synonymous with having a seriously flawed perception of reality. We are achieving more and more with fewer resources. Artificial intelligence and robots attend to unpopular tasks that no one is keen on doing anyway. That is something we should actually be grateful for—because this change finally gives us the opportunity to do everything right.

Two roboter walking
Artificial intelligence and robots attend to unpopular tasks that no one is keen on doing anyway. Photo © CC0 Licence

The previous wave of industrialization has brought many benefits for humans: affordable consumer goods, greater spending power, higher living standards and thanks to trade unions also regulated working conditions. And more jobs too, as a U.S. study carried out by Deloitte, a management consultancy, shows. It set out to analyze the evolvement of work from 1871 to the present. Here is what it has found:

  • In 1871, 80% of the U.S. population worked in farming, compared to 2% today. The number of people earning a living in the services and manufacturing sectors has massively increased.

  • The proportion of physically hard work has massively decreased.

  • On balance, over the past 150 years, technologies and innovations have created more jobs than they have destroyed.

The authors conclude that while in the future machines will take over more tasks that are repetitive and arduous, they will not reduce the need for human labor to a greater extent than they have done over the past 150 years.

That is to say there will be new work, but it will be different from the work that exists today.

Demand for more skills

Helmut Leopold of the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT) does not subscribe to the prophecies of doom and gloom. In an interview with “Der Standard”, an Austrian newspaper, he said that the quality and nature of work would change, pointing out that already today and irrespective of new technologies simple jobs such as drilling 1000 identical holes got outsourced to countries where people carried them out for very little money. But, he added, in the future there would be greater demand for highly qualified individuals capable of building robots and developing the software to control them. This, according to him, was more in line with human nature as it required creativity. While human qualities, such as creativity, empathy and social skills, will continue to be in demand, arduous routine tasks that no one wants to do anymore anyway will increasingly be performed by machines.

Time to redefine our concept of work?

It seems evident that as the second machine age is under way, the distribution of work as well as our attitude towards work will also change. Hence, we need to address the question of what makes life worth living. Many are likely to say: doing something meaningful and rewarding that earns you enough money to at least support yourself. The second machine age, in particular, gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we define work and question our attitude towards it. What do we mean by “work”? Do those who look after children, keep house at home or save lives as voluntary paramedics or firefighters not work? Should people live to work or rather work to live? The increase in machine work should translate into greater appreciation of human work.

It should make us appreciate, reward and celebrate people for what differentiates us humans from machines, robots and algorithms: social relationships, empathetic conversations, creative and innovative potential, the ability to understand and direct emotions, intuition. Let us create a more positive and more constructive utopia: Business will become imbued with human qualities. People will no longer be regarded just as providers of human labor but will be valued for all the things they are. Human power instead of human labor will be the philosophy. When we are not busy earning a living, we will support society in all sorts of ways—for instance by looking after children, by engaging in voluntary activities, by inventing things or simply by offering neighborly help.

Picture of a workroom
People will no longer be regarded just as providers of human labor but will be valued for all the things they are. Photo © Unsplash

Having no work vs. having no money

As early as 2006, occupational sociologist Ulrich Beck asked in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, whether it would not be wonderful to be able to achieve goals with ten times fewer people and accordingly reduce the suffering and pain associated with hard work. Proponents of full employment dread the mere thought of it. Being in employment is synonymous with being able to support oneself. And with not having to rely on public money. But Beck's philosophy is perfectly in tune with that of Frithjof Bergmann, the founder of New Work, a concept based on the following idea: one third gainful work, one third vocation and creativity, and one third community service. This time, the machine could really free us from the yoke of hard, tiresome, grueling work and make room for us to engage in creative and social activities.

The problem, according to Beck, is not having no work but having no money. As early as 2006, he advocated the concept of an unconditional basic income, and other experts have followed suit since then. As he put it, this income was to free people not from doing meaningful work but from the pressure of having to earn a living. Initial experiments carried out in Sweden and Germany bear out this idea: They have found that people get active and involved. The experts say that those willing to work are able to work with much greater freedom and self-determination, and those who prefer to spend their days slouching on the couch in front of the boob tube do so already. Moreover, they stress that individuals who are out of work also cost money, and that a basic income is an investment in people's self-determination that can be financed through, for instance, consumption-tax revenue.

A lack of social innovation

Here, too, social innovation is needed, given that in the eleven years since Ulrich Beck advocated the concept of an unconditional basic income hardly any new ideas have been put forward for discussion. Perhaps there will one day be a marketplace of skills and activities where people offer all sorts of services to society and get paid for them through a fund financed by corporations. Clearly, radical innovativeness that makes it possible to create something really new is missing. As philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann puts it, a lot of what is called an innovation turns out to be nothing more than an altered, improved or enhanced version of something that was a novelty a long time ago. According to him, there needs to be social transformation for real technological innovation to happen.

So the second machine age will have an impact not only on our ways of working and the time and effort we have to devote to earning a living but also on society, our daily routines, our values and our interpersonal relationships. When it comes to shaping this social transformation, we need to be proactive.

Humans will never run out of work—that is a fact. The real question is how much of it will be gainful work.

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