Notes politics

Chapter 2: Work (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Chapter 2: Work


When you grow up, you might not have a job

What will our future look like with AI? Already, we are seeing signs of a very different world.For example, technologies already exist that can recommend books and videos to us based on our previous tastes. One day, it may be possible to completely outsource our consumption of information to AI. We can explore new musical tastes by customizing an algorithm – for example, if we wanted to maintain an element of randomness in listening to music, we can select the 5 percent randomness option.

Traditional jobs will be lost but will be replaced with new ones. Doctors will have more time to do ground-breaking research and delegate many of their tasks to robots. But some people will not find it easy to find a new job.

In 1920 a farm worker laid off due to the mechanisation of agriculture could find a new job in a factory producing tractors. In 1980 an unemployed factory worker could start working as a cashier in a supermarket. Such occupational changes were feasible, because the move from the farm to the factory and from the factory to the supermarket required only limited retraining. But in 2050, a cashier or textile worker losing their job to a robot will hardly be able to start working as a cancer researcher, as a drone operator, or as part of a human–AI banking team. They will not have the necessary skills. In the First World War it made sense to send millions of raw conscripts to charge machine guns and die in their thousands. Their individual skills mattered little. Today, despite the shortage of drone operators and data analysts, the US Air Force is unwilling to fill the gaps with Walmart dropouts. You wouldn’t like an inexperienced recruit to mistake an Afghan wedding party for a high-level Taliban conference.

Even though new human jobs will appear, these jobs may not be suited for everyone. We may come to see the rise of the useless class, people who have no means of contributing meaningfully to the world’s economy.

Many people might share the fate not of nineteenth-century wagon drivers – who switched to driving taxis – but of nineteenth-century horses, who were increasingly pushed out of the job market altogether.

One solution to this problem that has been widely discussed is universal basic income, but looking at this term closer, we run into several problems. First, what is basic?

We don’t even have a consensus on what a basic education should include. Is reading and writing a basic education? A few years of elementary school or an academic career that ends with a PhD? And when it comes to healthcare, will the anti-ageing technology of the future be available to everyone or only a few billionaires?

Whichever way you choose to define ‘basic human needs’, once you provide them to everyone free of charge, they will be taken for granted, and then fierce social competitions and political struggles will focus on non-basic luxuries – be they fancy self-driving cars, access to virtual-reality parks, or enhanced bioengineered bodies.

But if the masses of unemployed people do not have money, it’s hard to see how they could get access to these things.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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