Our insane addiction to jobs

When you hear any political candidate today, job creation will always be mentioned somewhere in their rhetoric. It does not matter in which side of the political spectrum they reside. The voting public also demands jobs, jobs, jobs. Up to the point where job creation seems to become the highest achievable good. It has become such an obsession that we don’t care what kind of jobs they are and in the extreme case we even want to sacrifice lives for it.

Let me explain that last one because for many it might come as a shock.

When I travel through the US I often see people standing at the side of the road waving advertisement signs for hours on end. It’s a job, right? I would like someone to explain to me what, apart from the fact that it is indeed a job, are the benefits for either society or the person doing the job. Do we really need these kinds of jobs? Is this what some right wing politicians call ‘the greatest social program there is’? What is the job satisfaction people get out of it?

A while ago, either in 2015 or 2014, I don’t remember exactly, a prison in the province Nieuw Zeeland in the Netherlands was closed down. All the inmates would be put under house arrest with an ankle band. There was an uproar! Now you might think that this was because people did not feel really safe with convicted criminals living amongst them, even if they were wearing ankle bands. But that was not the reason. The uproar was over the loss of jobs. If you take a step back that means we put people in jail so that we can create jobs for others. That’s insane! It totally bypasses the needs of society, namely rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for a normal life in society. In Norway at least they figured this out, with success.

We run arms industries where the products that are manufactured have 1 single purpose: killing people. Yes, if you work in the arms industry you have blood on your hands. You might argue that we need to defend ourselves but these arms are exported to countries who wage wars with them, intentionally attacking others with the intent of harm. So, as a direct result of the existence of these industries people die. And I am not the only one who holds this opinion. But hey! They create jobs!

In Belgium we are going to cut down 27 acres of previously protected forest to make space for containers for Essers because it is supposed to bring us 400 jobs. Most of those jobs are not new though because they will just be transfers from other sites. 27 acres might not sound like much for people living in big countries like the US, Canada or Australia. You have to take into account that Belgium is very small and we already are the poorest country in Europe when it comes down to forests with only 13% of our surface area covered with them. But hey! It’s about jobs!

One of the greatest job creators on the planet is bureaucracy. In his book ‘The Utopia of Rules‘ author David Graeber describes its detrimental effects on our creativity and well being. It made me come to the conclusion that it can best be described as follows

Bureaucracy: the creation of mind numbing jobs with the goal of putting extra obstacles, in the form of paperwork, between people and what they need or want.

If you take a step back, do we really need all that paperwork which is not read by anyone most of the time anyway? These days doctors and teachers can hardly do any real work because they have to spend so much of it filling in paperwork. Getting something through our governance machine is excruciatingly slow because the tons of paperwork that is involved. But hey! We can outsource that and create jobs along the way!

The scarcity trap

We have been used to having to work for a living for so long that we forgot what it is to have a life. And with the job market in a crisis we are now falling in the scarcity trap of tunnel vision. We are so focused on job creation that we fail to see the bigger picture, namely that of our well being. When we succumb to tunnel vision, which is a consequence of scarcity (ref: Scarcity: why having so little means so much) we only see what is in the tunnel. In this case that means an eternal hunt for job creation, fueled by the entrenched habit of exchanging labour for money and money for goods and services.

The reality is though that our production capacity has grown tremendously since the beginning of the industrial revolution. First by replacing hard physical labour with machines and later automatisation. And we are now facing a technological change of a magnitude that we can’t even fathom yet: the AI revolution. I know many will say this is still science fiction and will take years before it really starts to have an influence on society or the job market at large. And they are dead wrong. The impact has already begun and it will only accelerate. Jobs will grow ever more scarce.

The AI revolution

Earlier this year Google’s AI beat the top human Go player. Now that may sound like a silly thing because not a lot of jobs are created by Go. But it’s not about that. It is an indication of how much complexity AI’s can handle these days. Go is a whole lot more complex than chess and brute force techniques don’t work to win the game. In brute force techniques the computer calculates all possible moves several turns in advance and chooses the best one. Go is so complex however that it is impossible to do this. So the AI needs to ‘learn’ the game, making best ‘guesses’ in order to do a move. To do this it processes a ton of data about previous games and learns to recognise patterns. And it won! This is not just surprising because of its success when faced with such a complex problem. Only a year ago even the experts thought it would take another decade to crack this.

On April 7 this year the first semi self-driving truck convoy finished a 1200 km journey through Europe. This is not full automation yet but it already reduces the need for highly skilled truck drivers. The only thing left to do is steer the thing. I imagine it must be a very fulfilling job to stare at the back of the truck in front of you, perpetually at the same distance, with nothing else to do than staying in your lane. It won’t be too long before the first convoy will be driving through Europe without the intervention of a human being.

Uber is already setting its sights on self driving cars, thereby solving their issues with their drivers (from their perspective anyway) and probably kickstarting the beginning of the end of the cab driver job.

Maybe you have seen the series ‘Person of interest’ where a computer spews out social security numbers of people who will be involved in violent crime based on data it gathers from street cameras, phone calls, computer networks, … We are definitely not there yet but the Atlanta police started using something that is definitely a step in that direction: PredPol. This piece of software predicts crime hot zones based on data it is fed from previous crimes and suspicious activities. When this gets better, and it will, less police officers will be needed because a smaller area needs to be covered.

Facebook is updating its messenger app to include bots. Maybe their implementation will not be the one that changes the world but it sure is the start of the further elimination of call centers operated by humans. Maybe not tomorrow but I’m pretty sure that by next year this technology will have improved in order of magnitudes.

ROSS and Plexus are 2 organisations that are now offering AI’s proficient in law. No, they won’t be pleading cases in front of a jury … yet. But they take over the grunt work of looking up references away from humans. This is the most time consuming part of the job and is often done by assistants. You know what this means … exit assistants.

IBM Watson was the one of the first AI’s to enter in the field of healthcare. The idea is that assisted by smart computers we will get better at treating and, most of all, preventing diseases. The latter can be achieved by collecting data from the now already ubiquitous fitness trackers. The technology is still in its early stages but even in 2013 it was already better at diagnosing certain cancers than humans could. Faster diagnosis, better treatment and better prevention of disease will result in less jobs in the healthcare sector.

It doesn’t stop with just smart machines that take over data driven cognitive tasks though. When you take a look at the next generation of Atlas robots by Boston Dynamics you can imagine that we are not far off from machines that can execute non trivial manual labor too.

The possible applications are endless. Just recently Google has added a functionality to their calendar that comes close to being a personal coach. If you want to surprise your friends with a novel dish you might want to check out Chef Watson, an AI driven by IBM’s Watson computer that creates recipes based on the ingredients you give it. Give it a go and enter garlic and coffee for example.

You might think that creative jobs are safe but you’d be wrong. AI’s are already making inroads into journalism and they are composing music.

The only limits to the advancements we are making in AI is the speed at which data gets collected and how fast the software can crunch through it to detect patterns. Those limits are determined by the available hardware and the efficiency of the AI algorithms themselves. Both fields in which we are still making progress, probably assisted by AI’s at one point in time. Probably already today but that’s just an assumption.

Now what?

No matter what we do, short from bombing the facilities where they are made (just so you know, this is meant to be humor), the machines are coming for our jobs. As the Borg say, resistance is futile. We need to pull our collective heads out of the sand, we need to wake up and smell the coffee. And we need to keep a clear head. Panic driven reactions rooted in an obsolete belief that the only way we can make a living is by holding on to paid jobs is not what we need now. Yes, in the world we live in today that is still the case. But if we really want to make progress we need to exit the tunnel vision of job scarcity and look at the wider picture.

  • Do we really need everyone to work in order for society to work?
  • Can we decouple income from having a job?

Looking at the fact that we currently have people working a whole lot of jobs that are superfluous and the fact that AI’s will be taking over more jobs from us in the future, the answer the first one is a no brainer: no.

The same goes for the second one. The answer to that is a universal basic income. Several countries are already starting or considering to implement this. That way we will free up time for all of us and we can start to make the transition from making a living to having a life.

Some of you might now be saying: but what will we do? Work gives meaning to our lives! Work and a job are not the same. A job is work you get paid for. There are many forms of work that you do for which you don’t get paid, some work even costs money these days! Raising kids, volunteer work, gardening, painting, educating yourself, … There is still plenty of work that we can do. The big shift happens when we move from the extrinsic motivation of wages to the intrinsic motivation of the work itself. It will take a while for everyone to wake up from the daze of wage slavery that most of us are in today, where we have been conditioned with the thought that work is mainly a necessary evil to endure in order to survive. But the shift has already started years ago and more and more people are finding the road to meaningful, satisfying work. With the rise of artificial intelligence and multi purpose robots we will eventually be able to shed virtually all the work that people just don’t want to do.

I see the universal basic as a first step towards a more humane society, a first step away from the destructive forces of neoliberalism that govern our society today. It will free up our minds and take us out of the tunnel vision created by the perceived job and monetary scarcity. That way we can all take a step back and start working on building a society that works for all of us and not just for the happy few.


Also published on Medium.

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