The Optimists Guide to the Future of Work

The future is not what it used to be.
The economy is in a slump. Middle class jobs are being hollowed out. Technology leaders fear machines will replace most jobs. There will be no work for most people. People are generally pessimistic about the future of work. There are endless, vivid doomsday scenarios for the future.

I have another view.

The Luddite Fallacy

“The robots are coming for our jobs.” It’s a familiar yet fallacious trope that goes back at least as far as the original Luddites. They fear when technology makes jobs obsolete, the displaced workers will have difficulty finding new work, and new jobs will never appear to replace those which were lost. The former is a legitimate concern. The latter, however, is groundless. It has proven false throughout history and will continue to be.

Why do people repeat the ‘Luddite fallacy’ every time machines disrupt an industry? I suspect the reason is it’s hard to imagine what comes next. Every radical disruption in productivity leads to a radical, new economy unlike anything seen before.

Think of it this way. If we lose half our jobs to machines it means we’ve become at least twice as productive; we can do the same work with half as many people. When we become more productive, products and services cost less, particularly those related to the sector with the largest job loss. When things cost less, consumers have extra money to spend on new products and services. Entrepreneurs strive to meet this new demand and, consequently, create new jobs.

A dramatic change in supply always leads to a dramatic change in demand.

Demand is unlimited. Since essentially everyone wants to live like a bajillionaire, demand always scales to meet our maximum capacity to provide for it. Therefore, in the long run, not only will all the robots be fully employed, but so will all the people. All a person has to do is contribute just slightly more than they consume and it will be worthwhile for them, or some entrepreneur, to find a way to take advantage of that contribution. Demand will always drive the market back up to full employment.

Intelligent Machines

The current specter of Luddite fears are so-called “intelligent machines.” These machines can be broken into two categories. The first are machines which are “smarter” than humans in some dimension but not all. IBM’s “Watson” with its win on Jeopardy! is one example. These kinds of machines are real and are changing the world.

The second kind of machines are smarter than humans on all dimensions. General purpose artificial intelligence is still the stuff of science fiction. While it is also an interesting topic, it is much more speculative, and has radically different implications. Though I believe there is an optimistic story to be told there, too, it is beyond the scope of this post.

Production

What can narrowly-intelligent machines do? Let’s start with robotics. We’ve long been able to build robots which are much stronger than humans, but their limitations in agility and awareness have limited them to the simplest jobs. With advancements in materials, mechanical engineering and software we are finally starting to build machines with agility comparable to humans. Further, machines are starting to achieve human level sensory perception including object recognition and spacial awareness.

Advances in these areas of intelligence will allow robots to replace and exceed humans at all sorts of mundane tasks. In principle, all mining, manufacturing, transportation and recycling can be fully automated. Even machine maintenance and monitoring can eventually be done by other machines.

Combine cheap, driverless transportation with our growing capacity for small-batch manufacturing and a very interesting possibility arises: mass small-batch manufacturing. As manufacturing technology itself gets cheaper and cheaper, it may become economically viable for every local print-copy-ship store to also include manufacturing. Garbage collectors and recyclers could convert the material they collect back into the raw resources these mini-manufactories need. The round trip distance raw materials need to travel from waste to new, delivered goods could be a few miles.

How much would goods cost if we had machines capable of mining, recycling, manufacturing and delivering everything without needing people? Essentially, the cost could drop to just above the raw materials and energy. Since what we throw away is roughly proportional in mass to what we buy, the majority of goods could be manufactured for little more than the energy cost. The amount of solar and nuclear energy potentially available is literally astronomical, and if you combined that with continual innovation in energy efficiency, the energy cost could be nearly zero.

With robots and intelligent machines, the price to manufacture anything could become nearly zero.

Too Sci-Fi?

I want to pause our optimistic exploration to ask a question. Is this too optimistic? After all, technology optimists have been claiming nirvana is just around the corner since at least the 1950s. Current science and engineering know-how support my claim that robots can, in theory, fully automate product lifecycles. I believe this is not only possible, but probable. However, I am not claiming any particular timeline.

There are many unsolved problems on the road to manufacturing cornucopia. Any number of them could take decades more time to solve than optimists like me believe. Social and political obstacles will also slow down overall progress in unpredictable ways. What I want to show here is that whether these changes happen slowly or quickly, a new economy will emerge that is anything but jobless.

The Third Age of Manufacturing

How might the market respond as we progress towards a world with no one working in mining, manufacturing, recycling or transportation and the cost of products approaching astonishingly close to zero? No-one can know for certain what will happen, but we can make an educated guess by looking at previous manufacturing revolutions.

In the beginning there were only artisans. Everything was made by hand. Even the crudest chair took hours of human labor to produce. However, the cost to tailor a product to individual needs was only a modest increase over the base price. The increase in cost of hand-making a tailored shirt over hand-making a standard-size shirt was just the time it took to take the person’s measurements. This was the first age of manufacturing.

Fast forward to the industrial revolution, the second age of manufacturing. Suddenly it was possible to produce standard goods for a tenth or a hundredth the earlier costs. One caveat: they must be produced in large batches to achieve those savings. Custom, tailored products did not get significantly cheaper. To this day tailored products are still dramatically more expensive than mass manufactured ones. Consequently, there are very few tailored products in our modern, daily lives.

Now, look forward to the third age of manufacturing. We are approaching a future where we can manufacturing anything either as a one-off or by the billions for the same, near-zero price. Suddenly it is possible for everyone to have tailored clothes or custom made furniture. Anything we interact with physically could benefit by being custom tailored for our unique bodies and preferences from shoes to houses. Small batch items for niche markets can be produced to satisfy all our interests no matter how obscure.

We have an insatiable appetite for new, better, different products. The scarce resources of the future will be the designers who think up all those products and the consumers time and ability to sift through them. As manufacturing costs approach zero there will be nearly unlimited demand for product designers. To help manage our time finding the right products, I expect there will also be a huge market for personal shoppers, fashion consultants, interior designers and assistants for finding every other kind of product, service or experience we might want.

The third age of manufacturing will dramatically increase the demand for entrepreneurs, designers, creators and personal assistants.

Take the clothing industry as an example. With near-zero-cost, on-demand production, we could have new clothes delivered before we wake up every day. These new clothes would fit perfectly, be the absolute latest fashion, and even be tuned perfectly for the day’s weather forecast. At the end of the day we place our clothes in the recycler. The material is then scurried away to be recycled into the next day’s clothes and many other things. We make a selection from the suggestions offered up by our personal fashion consultant, and the next morning we wake up to our next-day’s wardrobe. This system would require a virtual army of clothing designers and personal assistance to help us effortlessly select the best clothes for every day.

The Job Pessimists

Many smart people believe there will not be enough jobs for everyone in the future. With what I’ve already said, there should be some serious doubt about that perspective. However, I’d like to make a more general argument why this belief is fundamentally flawed.

What is a job? It is using one’s skills and time to produce value for someone else. Specifically, if someone can produce something valuable enough that others are willing to trade other valuable things for, then they have a “job.” To say there is no job for someone is to say there is nothing they can do with their time that anyone finds valuable.

If you believe, like me, that people are fundamentally valuable, then there will always be jobs for anyone who wants them. This syllogism sums it up:

  • Someone is “Not qualified for Any Job” if-and-only-if they are “Not Valuable to Anyone”
  • Everyone is valuable.
  • Therefore there is always a job for everyone.

People are fundamentally valuable, and food, clothing and housing will all get dramatically cheaper as the robots proliferate. To say there is no job for someone is to say they are a net drain on society — they are less valuable than the cost of keeping them alive. It is one thing to say individuals, due to the ever-changing economy, may have periods where they can’t figure out how to capitalize on their unique skills. It is quite another to say that large portions of society will permanently be worthless.

To say the future will be ‘jobless’ is the same thing as saying, in the future, people will be worthless.

The problem with this attitude is it is likely to be self fulfilling. If you tell someone they are useless repeatedly, they will start to believe it and stop trying to be useful. However, if you tell them they will always be valuable, they will believe that, and constantly strive to find their value and contribute.

Imagination

The main problem is a failure of imagination. It’s an understandable failing. We have not one but at least two world-wide economy-shaking changes coming down the pipe. Not only will we radical decrease the cost of living and our ability to produce valuable things, but we also have a tidal wave of new tools crashing down on us to radically empower everyone. It is hard to imagine what the future economy might look like, but we aren’t clueless.

I wrote this article to counter job-pessimism and to offer a few educated guess about what a future, smart-machine enabled, job-full future might look like.

Recommended Reading

Future-optimism can be difficult to find these days, so here are few links for those craving some more optimism about the future:

Last, I found this article a fascinating historical perspective on economic forces which act as a braking-force to technological innovation, slowing down job replacement: