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Recently, various economists, business leaders, and twitterists have opined about the net result of artificial intelligence and robotics on jobs. Of course , no-one can really predict the future. (And, that will remain true, even should a “hyper-intelligent AI system” evolve). The discussion does raise interesting points about the nature of work and what a society might be like if only a small fraction of people are “required” to work in order to meet the economic needs of the population.

As one tries to be precise, it becomes necessary to be a little clearer about what is meant by “work”, “the economic needs” and “the population.” For example, at one extreme, one can imagine a society that requires nearly everyone to work, but only between the ages of 30-50 and only for a few hours a week. This would allow the “work” to be spread widely through the population. Or, one could imagine “work” in which everyone and not just a few researchers and academics, would be encouraged to spend at least 50% of their time continuing to monitor and improve their performance, take courses, do actual research, take the time to communicate with users, etc. Alternatively, one could imagine a society in which only 1/10 to 1/3 of the people worked while others did not work at all. In still another version, rather than have long-term jobs, people have a way of posting needs for very small, self-contained tasks, and people choose ones that they want in return for credits which can be used for various luxuries.

When we speak of economic “needs,” we might do well to distinguish between “needs” and “wants” although these are not absolutely well-defined categories. We need nutrition and have no need for refined sugar, but to most people, it tastes good so we may well “want” it. We can imagine, that at one extreme, the economy produces enough of some bland substance like “Soylent Green” to provide everyone’s nutritional needs but no-one ever gets a gourmet meal (or even a burger with fries). It gets rather fuzzier when we discuss “contingent needs.” No-one “needs” a computer after all in order to live. However, if you “must” do a job, you may well “need” a computer to do that job. If you want to live a full life, you may “want” to take pictures and store them on your computer. If you want, on the other hand, to spy on everyone and be able to charge exorbitant prices in the future, then you “need” to convince everyone to store their photos in the “cloud.” Then, once everyone has all their photos in the cloud, you can arbitrarily do whatever you want to mess them over. You don’t really “need” to drive folks crazy, but it might be one way to get rich.

How much “work” is required depends, not only on how much we satisfy wants as well as needs, but also on the population that is supported. For many millennia, the population of the earth was satisfied with hunting and gathering and stayed small and stable. We cannot support 7 billion people in that manner. Seven billion require some type of agriculture, although it might be the case that it can be done more locally and not require agro-business. In any case, all the combinations of population, how broadly human wants and needs are to be satisfied, and how work is distributed across the population will make huge differences in the social, economic, and political implications of “The Singularity.” Even failing that an actual “Singularity” is reached, tsunamis of change are in store due to robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Work is not only about providing economic value in return for other economic values. Work provides people with many of their social connections. Friends are often met through work as are spouses. Even the acquaintances at work who never become friends provide a social facilitation function. If there is no work, people can find other ways to engage socially for others; e.g., walking in parks, being on sport teams, constructing collaborative works of art, making music, etc. It is likely that people need (not just want), not only some feeling of social connection, but of social contribution. We are probably “wired” to want to help others, provide value, give others pleasure, and so on. If work with pay is not necessary for most people, some other ways must be devised so that each person feels that they are “important” in the sense of providing the others in their “tribe” some value.

Work provides people “focus” as well as identity. If work is not economically necessary, it will be necessary that other mechanisms are available that also provide focus and identity. Currently, in areas where jobs are few and far between, people may find focus and identify in “gangs.” Hopefully, if millions of people lose jobs from automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, we will collectively find better alternatives for providing a sense of belonging, focus and identity than lawless gangs.

Some of the many “jobs” performed by AI systems in Turing’s Nightmares include: musical composer, judge, athlete, lawyer, driver, family therapist, doctor, executioner, disaster recovery, disaster planning, peacemaker, personal assistant, winemaker, security guard, and self-proclaimed god. Do you think there are jobs that can never be performed by AI systems?


Readers may enjoy my book about possible implications of “The Singularity.”


The following book explores (among other topics) how amateur sports may provide many of the same benefits as work.


You can also follow me on twitter JCThomas@truthtableJCT