The End of Work?

“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
Death is the end of life; ah, why/ should life all labor be?”

Tennyson, deep in the golden age of the Protestant work ethic, saw attitudes like those expressed in the above quotes from “The Lotos Eaters” as inherently sinful, brought on by indulgence in a drug which deflected the mariners from their proper pursuit of returning Ulysses to his kingdom. He had seen the fruits of the Industrial Revolution which many had thought would foreshadow terrible times as machinery replaced human workers in many traditional industries. The Luddites and their less violent co-theorists were proved wrong; then and since then, the introduction of new technologies have seen the end of old skills and the need for new, but on the whole full employment remained at least a theoretical possibility.

Why then should it be different now? We are, as most acknowledge, in the throes of an “Information Revolution” and once again we are looking at a transformation in society which promises to be greater and faster than the one from agricultural to industrial. However the big difference is that this revolution replaces the human mind by computers. In the Industrial Revolution it was the manual labour of human beings that was replaced by machinery, which meant that goods could be produced more quickly and more cheaply. The consequence was that fewer workers were required, and their task was now to control and direct the (dumb) machinery; however because the goods were so much cheaper, and transportation systems could be made much better, trade increased enormously so that more machines were needed to keep up with demand, more humans to operate them and those put out of work could find new, albeit different, jobs. It is however difficult to see where any equivalent expansion could come from to replace the jobs lost as a result of computerization. Trade will not suffice; expansion may require more machinery, and more computers to operate them, but no, or very few, more humans. The new machinery and even the computers are themselves built in automated factories. Computer-controlled machinery can handle virtually every stage of a production process from mining for raw materials to transportation, manufacture and even advertising and market research. What is left for humans to do?

Let us just pause for a while to look at some of the jobs that will either disappear completely over the next few years or where numbers will decrease rapidly. We should note that in many cases the technology that will replace humans already exists; humans remain because they are cheaper than the robots that will replace them. This is a situation that will not last as one irrefutable fact about these technologies is that they become better and much cheaper over time.

  • First, not much surprise, assembly line jobs, such as still exist will go. Manufacturing in general is at the start of a massive change as additive manufacturing, or 3D printing becomes commonplace. Already we have seen large items such as houses and jet engines produced this way, but on a smaller scale they will become household items so many small things will be produced on the spot. Skin, bone and other human organs have been built this way as well as foodstuff.
  • Secondly all driving and most other jobs in transportation will go. All the big automotive companies have invested billions of dollars into the production of self-driving cars (and vans, lorries and busses.) They will be here very soon now and because they will be inherently much safer than human drivers they will take over almost completely. The same applies to air and much sea transport.
  • Call centres, technical support and similar phone response systems will become automatic. Many are almost there already. Humans currently only act as a bridge between human callers and the computers that hold all the information. Voice recognition and speech synthesis are making great strides and it can already be very difficult to distinguish between humans and computers with the best examples.
  • Teachers, surprisingly, are also very likely to diminish greatly in numbers. The presentation of information, testing comprehension and monitoring progress can all be handled automatically using such resources as the Khan Academy. This leaves teachers with a mentoring and socialising task, but that does not require anywhere as many.
  • The armed forces are diminishing in numbers quite rapidly, not just because of political decisions but also because of the increasing use of drones and battlefield robots; currently mainly remotely controlled but increasingly becoming autonomous.
  • Agricultural workers are already on the way out; not just by automated machinery to plant, tend and harvest them, but also as genetic modification and vertical farming concentrates and decreases the surface area given over to agriculture.
  • Most tiers of management can be replaced by Artificial Intelligence (a marked improvement many of us will feel!) Fewer humans to manage and faster and more reliable automated decision making give machines the edge even here.

These examples show that the axe will fall on nearly all sections of society. What jobs will remain? First the very top levels of management, dealing with global strategy will remain. This should be no surprise because at this level we find the rich and powerful, the 1% beloved of headline writers. These are the people who, among other things, own the research laboratories and fund the university departments which drive progress. Progress is very much under their control so we should not be too surprised when it is done to benefit them more than others. Secondly there will, for a long time, be the researchers, the scientists and technologists. A growing number of people see a time when the intellectual capacity of Artificial Intelligences will exceed that of humans, the so-called Singularity. This has been predicted as early as 2045 by some. Assuming (possibly wrongly) that this is unlikely, there will remain a need for exceptional humans to lead the search for new ideas. Thirdly there will be jobs in culture, sport and entertainment; it is difficult to see this being completely taken over by machines, though much of the peripheral support will be automated. Apart from this there will probably remain scope for a few servants for those in work but little else.

So what will people do, and more importantly how can they survive without work and an income that they can use to obtain the necessities of life? There are two ways of looking at this, given current political and social norms. If we maintain the current capitalist, consumerist paradigm, then there is no point in manufacturing anything, even in automated factories, without anyone to buy the products. It is therefore in the interests of the rich to allow some of their wealth to spread out to those who have no work in order that they can continue to consume; the circulation of money would continue to drive a capitalist economy. This is why there is support for concepts like “The Basic Income” even from the right of the political spectrum. The other view is that once their mechanisms for automated factories to produce the goods that they require have been set up by the rich, they will no longer need the rest of humanity, provided they can defend their holdings it will not matter if the rest descend into bare subsistence with war and disease reducing numbers to what the bits of earth left can provide. In this view the rich, being the only ones capable of affording the new treatments for longevity, organ replacement and cybernetic enhancement will have evolved into something that is almost a separate species.

This future, despite the amazing benefits to humanity that technological progress is bringing and can bring, is beginning to look distinctly dystopian, unless there is a new left-wing, redistributive ideology that can take over and guide us into a better one. It is no good continuing to press for full employment in anything but the very short term, the jobs just will not be there. What does “ownership of the means of production” mean in a world where production is carried out by robots under the management of an Artificial Intelligence? It is the fruits of research and progress that need redistribution; wealth is being created in a laboratories more than in factories. Research must be concentrated in University departments which should be state-funded and not have to rely on business that places patents and other restrictions on their results. Enterprise in new ideas and technologies should be fairly rewarded, not the ridiculous rewards for the ability to juggle financial instruments around the world’s markets. People must be educated to understand technology and its implications so that they cannot be bamboozled by clever advertising; they must be taught intellectual self-sufficiency so that they can live rewarding lives without endless toil for others’ benefit. The Basic Income must be seen as a human right, not charity from the rich, and above all the global taxation systems must be reformed so that the gap between rich and poor can be brought down to a sane and sustainable level, while allowing fair reward for those whose efforts deserve it.