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A World Without Work: Robotic Automation Won't Be as Bad as We Think
Job automation won't be as bad as we think, so we need to learn how to stop working and prepare so we're not dragged into the future kicking and screaming.
The average employed American works about nine hours a day, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Twice as many of them are unhappy at work than happy. The commute to and from work, which is also considered work, only deepens the misery. That’s why most of us are excited by the prospect of robots taking over the job market in the near future – even if we’re scared about being left jobless.
That fear is justified. IT research firm Gartner predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Our own Ray Kurzweil backs that up by insisting that robots will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029. Both projects are stark, and difficult to verify given the inconsistent advancement of artificial intelligence, as we’ve told you before. But the technology continues to advance in that direction, so some day in the near-ish future you should expect a machine to take over your job. IT expert Andrew MacAfee explains how – even for highly skilled workers:
As McAfee points out, we used to think that automating jobs would create a permanent underclass of unskilled cheap labor. Recent advancements in AI and deep learning are proving that to not be the case. It’s now simply a matter of time before a robot takes your job. If you want to prepare for that, you need to redefine what work means to you.
Right now, work signifies different things to different people. Economically speaking, work is a means of earning and distributing purchasing power. Personally speaking, work is a major source of identity, purpose, and even self-fulfillment. In a post-work world, work will be none of these things. Without work to give us meaning, we might drive ourselves nuts. In fact, if we don’t have work in our lives, we already drive ourselves nuts. 20 percent of Americans who’ve been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, according to this Gallup poll. That’s double the rate for working Americans. The Atlantic found even more research, including reports that suggest “the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time.”
Combine that self-torture with our cultural tendencies to demonize people who avoid work and we’ve got a society that has no idea how not to work. “People who avoid work are viewed as parasites and leeches,” John Danaher of National University of Ireland told The Atlantic. “Perhaps as a result of this cultural attitude, for most people, self-esteem and identity are tied up intricately with their job, or lack of job.”
That’s only going to get worse when robots do all the work.
As The Guardian reports, we’re not good at coping with that now:
Labour [sic] markets have coped [with robotic automation] the only way they are able: workers needing jobs have little option but to accept dismally low wages. Bosses shrug and use people to do jobs that could, if necessary, be done by machines. Big retailers and delivery firms feel less pressure to turn their warehouses over to robots when there are long queues of people willing to move boxes around for low pay. Law offices put off plans to invest in sophisticated document scanning and analysis technology because legal assistants are a dime a dozen. People continue to staff checkout counters when machines would often, if not always, be just as good. Ironically, the first symptoms of a dawning era of technological abundance are to be found in the growth of low-wage, low-productivity employment.
James Manyika of The White House Global Development Council agrees, and explained the nuts and bolts of it to us here:
As a society, we need to figure out how to live without work – not just for our sanity and self-esteem, but for the future of our species. There are tons of benefits to being a post-work society. The biggest immediate benefit is that we can reinvest the time we spend at work toward pursuits that make us happier. According to research out of Stanford, families that spend more time together experience a higher degree of happiness and life satisfaction that people who don’t. “Researchers [at Harvard] have found that having close relationships is the number-one predictor of happiness, and the social connections that a work-free world might enable could well displace the aimlessness that so many futurists predict,” The Atlantic reports.
Without work, we could finally fix our educational system and make it work for every single child. “The primary purpose of the educational system is to teach people to work. I don’t think anybody would want to put our kids through what we put our kids through now,” Gray told The Atlantic. Education may become a one-on-one approach that’s a best fit for every child instead of a factory pumping out future workers.
We could also make strides to end income inequality. Without work to define and distribute income, it could be distributed by the state “through the payment of a basic income, for instance, or direct public provision of services such as education, healthcare and housing. Or, perhaps, everyone could be given a capital allotment at birth.,” The Guardian speculates.
Best of all, we can find deeper, meaningful ways of contributing to the world around us. “If greater numbers of people were using their leisure to run the country, that would give people a sense of purpose,” Randolph Trumbach of Baruch College told The Atlantic.
But all of those options will only be possible if we figure out how to make them happen. And if we’re going to do that we need to do it now, before we’re thrust into it. If we don’t, “pushing people out of work will simply redirect the flow of income from workers to firm-owners: the rich will get richer,” as The Guardian puts it.
In a post-work world, that outcome might spell disaster.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.