Humanity in a World of Machine
A Research Paper for my CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Application
The effects of technology are creating a shift in society. How does America manage its resources when we face a decline of jobs and an increase in wealth? The answer seems simple. Preemptive measures would be more efficient than dealing with repercussions.
Technology influences the way we will live tomorrow, making the future an interesting world to postulate. Henry Ford’s technologically advanced manufacturing process from the 19th century is credited for the mass production of automobiles. At the time, his perfection of the assembly line involved implementing conveyer belts, ropes, and pulleys, simultaneously creating thousands of jobs for the working class. He hired personnel considered unemployable by other firms, and gave the masses equal opportunities: a car the average American worker could afford, and jobs any American could do. Technological advancements like this one gave hope to countless Americans during the Industrial Revolution, who previously had few opportunities to earn a reliable income. The disabled, those who couldn’t afford a higher education, and aspiring artists or amateur philosophers who found it increasingly difficult to survive off of their earnings, now had a place to go every day that paid the bills.
Many factories today, however, require fewer workers in order to function, because technology that can “man” itself has put a large percentage of assembly line workers out of a job. In recent years, further advancements have given experts substantial reason to believe the same will be the fate for drivers, service centers, and car technicians. Today, cars can park themselves and by 2022, there will be 32 million cars on the road capable of benefiting from over-the-air (OTA) software updates. These updates are limited to software, but the number of software components within the vehicles is increasing. We can extrapolate that there will be a time when they are all capable of OTA updates and the original equipment manufacturers can connect directly to the vehicle, lessening the need for service centers.
It’s a ubiquitous trend. If an industry’s employees were placed on a pyramid, the CEO would command the tip and assembly line workers would fill the bottom. The further you work your way up the pyramid, the more elite the employee’s qualifications are and the more intellectual investment they have in the business. Technology is eating at the slice, crust first. As a species, our strength has always been in our ability to create tools that do what we can do more quickly and more accurately. A recent Oxford study suggests that we are succeeding, and that 47% of jobs in the US will be replaceable within the next two decades. We can’t deny the advantages, though. Using our automobile example as a reference, researchers estimate that in a matter of decades autonomous cars could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90%. In addition to safety, it’s difficult to argue with the money that efficiency brings into the economy.
A moral compass would tremble between the good of future generations and maintaining the livelihood of current employees. Technological innovators promise a better lifestyle to the people and more wealth to be had. For individuals working to make a life for their family, the loss of a job is a more imminent fear.
Why capitalism has worked so far
“If the Luddite fallacy were true we would all be out of work because productivity has been increasing for two centuries,” –Alex Tabarrok, economist
The “Luddite fallacy” is an observation used to argue against the idea that technology is a threat to employment. Economists coined the term in reference to the 19th century textile workers who smashed the machines that were created to do textile work, in fear that new machinery would put an end to their trade. The Luddites protested against technology and against the fact that lesser skilled workers were being hired to manage the machines for a lower income. These self-employed weavers feared a society that would favor technology and eventually render a large fraction of the population, unemployed.
What happened instead was that more jobs were created. Engineers were needed to build the machines and mechanics were needed to maintain them. Increased income meant that there was a bigger population who could afford the product. Demand increased and even more workers were needed to handle the machinery. The observation reflects the idea that technology will continue to create new occupations and the job market will not suffer in the hands of innovation.
Historically, technology has led to an increase in productivity for its respective sector, at the expense of jobs. This productivity is met with an increase in income for the workers who are still employed by that sector. Increased income generates more demand for products and services, and new jobs are created for displaced workers. In economic jargon, technological unemployment leads to structural unemployment, but structural unemployment has solutions: Use what the workers already know to another industry’s advantage or retrain them entirely. In other words, one sector’s trash is another sector’s treasure.
So WTF (Why The Fear)?
“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything.” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways. Either way, nothing happens.” –Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
At this stage of technological innovation, consider it a numbers game. Technology is increasing wealth as it always does, but the wealth is becoming more concentrated by the decade. The money is being distributed amongst a smaller fraction of people, because middle-class jobs are being eliminated much faster than we can create new ones.
Machinery created in the past replaced tens of men, but required construction, maintenance, and handlers. A single cotton gin, for example, could do the job of 50 men cleaning cotton but it created jobs for roughly 50 more. Today’s Artificial Intelligence is software based. A more unique set of skills is required for the creation of software, and the team required to maintain it is much smaller. By the time Google, Uber, and Tesla have created autonomous cars, one programmer will be replacing thousands of mechanics. The vehicles, which were first created in the form of trucks that make long journeys, will oust 3.5 million truck drivers and 5.2 million trucking personnel in the US.
People who currently hold middle class positions are going to be finding themselves shifting to lower paying jobs because their training does not apply to any other occupation in their economic class. Their expertise might be needed in new jobs, but — much like the Luddites — these jobs will be easier to fill, meaning the pay will be lower. Additionally, jobs created by the digital economy are requiring the people who do not benefit from it to compete with the higher wages this sector’s technology brings to its employees. Prices of homes and goods will go up, making it increasingly difficult for those who have upheld a middle-class lifestyle in past decades, to continue to do so.
This is not to say that future ventures won’t provide occupations for the newly unemployed in other sectors, but the rates will continue to be disproportionate. According to economist Tyler Cowen, we’re at the longest period of private sector job creation, but the inactivity of men has doubled since the 1970s — something he has called the “key statistic.” AT&T, once our most valuable company, was worth $267 billion and employed 758,000 people. Today, Google is worth $370 billion, and employs 55,000.
The economical efficiency and inexpensive costs brought on by technology have decreased our need for manpower and increased the residual wealth, creating a saturation of money at the tip of the pyramid. If dealt with preemptively, this scenario does not have to be something to fear. With the proper economy, this wealth could be used to increase productivity.
Proof is in the Practice: Basic Income
“In the long run, automation makes us more prosperous overall, but it creates income distribution challenges, with the people towards the bottom being crowded out. If we manage to create resources without a huge labour demand, the problem will not be, ‘Oh no, there’s no jobs!’ but ‘Oh no, we have lots of wealth — now how do we distribute it?’” –David Autor, Professor of Economics at MIT
CEO Dan Price shook the foundation of the business model when he instilled a $70,000 minimum wage at his company, Gravity Payments. After the recession nearly brought the company down, he played it safe and his employees’ salaries reflected his caution. In 2012, he implemented a “one-time deal” 20% raise. Profits rose equally as much as they had before, and it was met with a productivity jump of 30–40%. Considering it a possible fluke, he did it again and witnessed the same results. Upon crunching some numbers, he decided to cut his $1.1 million dollar paycheck down to $70,000 in an effort to phase in the minimum wage for the rest of his employees. He vowed not to “raise prices, lay off staff, or cut executive pay” according to Inc’s recent piece on Price. Just 6 months later, revenue and profit have both doubled, and their retention rate is at an unheard of 95%.
According to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), Universal Basic Income (UBI) “is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means, test, or work requirement.” It is implemented by the government, and given to each citizen in the country. On a larger scale, it is much like the minimum wage set for the employees at Gravity Payments. There are other variables that could have affected the results of Price’s project. At a time when his decision as a CEO was unheard of, his generosity likely helped with publicity. Additionally, his employees could have been more grateful than those of a company that was built this way from the ground up. The numbers are extreme, and the example is specific, but the goal is clear. UBI creates an even playing field, so that less mental capacity is consumed by discontent, and less effort is put towards the betterment of your personal lifestyle.
On a larger scale, UBI could pave the way for innovation in sectors that have progressed relatively less in the past few decades, such as the arts and philosophy. Scott Santens is a leader in the UBI movement. He is utilizing a common startup practice and crowdfunding his own basic income of $1000/month. A German project followed suit and, so far, it has funded 11 people with no strings attached. The success stories say it all. One winner is using his time to finally write his dissertation, and another quit his call center job to become a teacher.
Here’s the Rhyme to the Reason
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” –George Bernard Shaw, Nobel-Prize and Oscar-winning Irish playwright
The argument comes down to what we believe is intrinsic to human nature. When the odd jobs don’t need filling, our resources and mental capabilities give us the potential to innovate on another level. If basic needs are filled, however, will we lose incentive and the competitiveness that comes with it? Capitalism is, after all, what fueled our country, but it can be argued that a lack of incentive is neither the appropriate argument nor a legitimate concern.
Disincentive cannot be an argument against UBI, because our current system is guilty of it. When an unemployed person gets a job, they lose a substantial bit of their welfare payments. An individual can go from being unemployed to working a full week, and only raise their income marginally. Under UBI, the same payment would be received in addition to their salary and a disincentive no longer exists.
As for it being a concern, studies have shown otherwise. In a psychology experiment in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science, participants were told they would be paid based on the number of answers they found to a word search. They could pick amongst the word searches provided to them, but only one group (Group B) had the option to not participate. Group B had 100% participation and spent 40% more time on the task. The conclusion here was that humans do not want to sit idle. The studies prove that we were built with both a visceral need to be productive, and an innate aversion to being told what to do. According to Guy Standing, the co-founder of BIEN and a professor at the University of London, “When people stop working out of fear, they become more productive.”
Over the years, employees who work long hours have become synonymous with employees who are hard workers. Research surrounding lunch breaks, unlimited paid vacation, and a flexible work environment, has proven otherwise. UBI is not a perfect solution, but neither is the currently implemented one. What we need to do is “trust that by taking that pressure off people, some people will do nothing productive and some people will create incredible new leaps forward, and that’s okay,” as Sam Altman stated in an interview at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014.
What Altman, other tech leaders, and supporters of the UBI movement embrace, is the essence of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The five-stage model, often depicted as a pyramid, can be divided into basic needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization). In the pyramid, physiological and biological needs such as food, water, air, and sleep, inhabit the base. Once these are satisfied, an individual strives for safety, then love, then esteem, and finally self-actualization. The highest level consists of realizing one’s personal potential. According to Maslow, each person is capable of self-fulfillment and the opportunity to seek personal growth, but society rewards us in such a way that only one in a hundred achieve it. Give a man his basic needs, and he has the potential to free himself of the fear of success, has time to work on his relationships, and can be confident enough to explore his independence. A basic income would push each individual past the first, most difficult, step.
We Could Put Good Minds To Better Use
“Everyone should be guaranteed a decent basic income. A rich country like the US can well afford to keep everyone out of poverty.” –John Kenneth Galbraith, economist
The competitive nature of a capitalist economy creates incentive to generate new products or services. According to Matt Rosoff of Business Insider, “Does the world really need another messaging startup, or another social network, or another photo filter? No. But we might use a better one! That’s the glory of capitalism. If you have a great idea, and you can figure out how to sell it for a profit, congratulations. You’re in business.” And there you have it. At the height of innovation, jobs are requiring less of employees cognitively and more of consumers monetarily. Case in point, Postmates couriers and Uber drivers.
These employees are often the ones who are in between full-time jobs, paying for school, or trying to feed themselves and their families while they attempt to pursue a passion. They work to fulfill their own basic needs, while they help execute luxury services. Anyone who has sat in an Uber and had a conversation with his or her driver knows the story. “I bought this car so I could become an Uber driver in San Francisco while I pursue my passion to write music.”
First, we consider how ridesharing and delivery services are trading their drivers out for self-driving cars. Uber has allegedly offered to buy half a million cars from Tesla in 2020, if they are all autonomous. As of the end of 2014, Uber employed 106,000 drivers, 38% of whom have no other job and will have to find another way to make the money to live. More importantly, Uber is employing 106,000 people who could spend their time more efficiently. Had they not had to worry about a constant income for basic needs, they could be developing their trade or discovering the contribution they can make to society. The possibility that our generation’s greatest minds are spending their time on bikes delivering gourmet burgers, when they could be putting their thoughts to more constructive ideas, is distressing.
For those who have yet to find their particular niche, it is a matter of stretching the parts of their brain that a robot does not possess. In a 2013 paper published by Oxford professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, their findings implied “that as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers will move to tasks that are not susceptible to computerization — i.e., tasks that required creative and social intelligence,” the paper states. “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”
Preparing for the Leap of Faith
“I think we need to just get over this old school American ideal that hard work is valuable for its own sake, because machines are going to do the work better.” –Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator
Ultimately, we need to allow technology to take over the work that is menial and laborious, and work towards a society that allows displaced employees to explore jobs that are more fulfilling and akin to human strengths. Until the day we create technological singularity, meaning computers that can build computers better than they are, there are certain occupations that we can depend on to be reserved for humans. So far, we are much better than any robot at tasks that rely on creative thought, entrepreneurialism, or anything requiring interpersonal or emotional intelligence. Nurses, philosophers, motivational speakers, caretakers, and entertainers fall into these categories. We need to encourage people to choose their professions based on their expertise and societal needs, rather than depend on a personal monetary need.
According to the New York Times, the extent to which jobs required social skills grew 24% between 1980 and 2012. Education should reflect this change, and focus on enhancing social skills at a young age. Marco Rubio, a 2016 GOP candidate, attempted to make the case for more vocational programs in the most recent debate. “Welders make more money than philosophers,” he stated. “We need more welders and [fewer] philosophers.” We need to save the welding for the machines and encourage the progress of philosophy in order to progress as a nation. For this to work, we would require Washington DC’s support.
Much like the movement from traditional cars to autonomous, the transition period would be messy. According to co-author of The Second Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson, the change to a flexible workweek is inevitable but not imminent. Unsure when exactly it will be, he hypothesizes “a time in the future when machines do most of the jobs we’re doing today, and humans don’t have to work a whole lot if they don’t want to.” The average American citizen considers a forty-hour week standard and compulsory, but full-time work is arguably an invention of the Industrial Revolution. A basic income will negate this practice, and people are going to have a hard time adjusting to a lifestyle that does not revolve around a nine-to-five job. Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, has suggested that this concept could initially lead to dystopian depression, but there are solutions. Thompson proposes the idea of a national marketplace of work, much like TaskRabbit. Here, tasks would be shared, and people would present their skill set. Either by finding one another or following the orders of a moderator, these projects would be paired with a capable person and both parties would have the opportunity to fill a void. This marketplace would, of course, have to be supported by local governments. With the support of policies that would allow people to continue to work, we can wean them off of the lifestyle they assume is the norm.
Making the Dream Work
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” –Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations
Ford gave the people who were struggling financially, a way to pay their bills. The economy flourished, and the American citizens could feed their families. His innovation came at a time when wealth was already concentrated, so it conveniently evened out incomes. Today, jobs are being taken away but the people are not as easily nor quickly displaced. In an effort to make ends meet, they are spending their time doing tasks that can and will be done by robots, instead of making use of the skills that are unique to humans.
A universal basic income would mean we could stop pointing angry fingers at the companies making robots that increase productivity, and start condemning the ones creating mundane jobs. By removing the average American’s need to make a buck, we can eradicate services that we simply do not need and even increase the number of wealthy families in the country. Programs like The Giving Pledge, a campaign that encourages the wealthy to give a large fraction of their wealth to philanthropic causes, would grow in size meaning more money could go towards philanthropy than ever before.
When it comes to the progress of innovation, a program like Peter Diamandis’ X Prize puts doubters to rest. Innovators will continue to create, and their predecessors will encourage them to do so, as made clear by Elon Musk’s decision to share all of Tesla’s patents. When asked by Stephen Colbert why he was being the Snowden of himself, he responded “If we’re all in a ship together, and the ship has some holes in it, and we’re sort of bailing water out of it, and we have a great design for a bucket, then even if we’re bailing out way better than everyone else, we should probably still share the bucket design.”
If the goal is to keep the ship afloat, we must pull our resources together. In order to reap the long-term benefits, we need to stop encouraging the exclusivity of monetary resources, and be motivated instead by the well being of our ship.