The identity crisis stemming from technology progress and AI

There has been a lot of discussion over the technological aspects of AI and its direct short term impact on jobs and employment. However, there is a deeper civilization change that AI may herald, which is not often explored. But first, some background to prime you to the problem space.

Effort required for Living in comfort

There is a very useful way to determine the cost of something independent of extraneous economic factors such as currency, era, country etc. This is to determine how long does an average person (with the average per capita income) need to work to earn enough to buy a certain good or service. I also happen to think that it is one of the most representative of the human state as well.

It is well known in literature that the cost of stuff that we need to do to survive and live comfortably has gone down dramatically over the eons. This includes working for money as well as household chores. From an excellent commentary on https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours#working-hours-in-the-household

Valerie Ramey and Neville Francis (2009)3 have studied how work and leisure have changed over the course of the 20th century.

The chart below shows how hours worked in home production have changed.

The activities included in home production are: planning, purchasing goods and services (except medical and personal care services), care of children and adults (both in the household and outside the household), general cleaning, care and repair of the house and grounds (including yard work, but excluding gardening), preparing and clearing food, making, mending, and laundering of clothing and other household textiles.

The authors find that “there were significant declines in time spent in home production by women in every age group”. You can see the data for women broken down by age group here.


Max Roser (2018) — ”Working Hours”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours’ [Online Resource]


Max Roser (2018) — ”Working Hours”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours’ [Online Resource]

Almost identically, the working hours required for work shows an equally steep decline, compared to the agrarian age. Availability of leisure time is one of the major perquisites of our progress. It is not for nothing that Late Hans Rosling (of Gapminder and Ted Talks fame) called the washing machine the greatest invention of all time.


AI and Automation

The decline in working hours is a consistent long-term trend, and is likely to continue. The great advances in Artificial Intelligence and increased automation also threatens to affect employment and can render a large populace to be unemployed. Even as of today, AI has created more jobs than it has eliminated, but all the jobs it has created are skilled labour jobs or technical jobs, whereas the repetitive jobs done by traditionally unskilled labour force are being automated. With the impending advent of autonomous vehicles, there is a huge question mark over the livelihood of a large number of drivers and helping staff engaged in transport of goods and people. From http://theinstitute.ieee.org/ieee-roundup/blogs/blog/will-automation-kill-or-create-jobs

Automation is increasingly proliferating in every aspect of our lives, whether it’s robots building the cars we drive or artificial intelligence systems driving the vehicles for us. With the rise of autonomous systems, the big concern for many people is how their jobs will be impacted.

A recently published report from the McKinsey Global Institute think tank attempts to tackle that question. Although robots already can replace workers who do physical labor, such as miners and factory workersas well as those who collect and process data, like bank tellers and travel agentsthe report concludes that less than 5 percent of occupations are likely to be completely wiped out by automation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean job security for workers in such industries, according to several reports.

WHO IS IMPACTED THE MOST?

The effect of automation on jobs really depends on the occupation. A reportby the International Institute for Sustainable Development suggests automation could replace more than half of mining jobs in the next decade. The mining industry is already using automated loaders and tunnel-boring systems, and is testing fully autonomous long-distance trains to carry materials from the mine to a port, eliminating the need for workers to do these tasks.

Truck, taxi, and delivery drivers also need to worry. “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy,” published in December by the Executive Office of the U.S. President, states that automated vehicle technology could threaten or alter 2.2 to 3.1 million of these jobs in the United States. That means 80 percent to 100 percent of these positions will be eliminated, affecting some 1.7 million truck drivers alone. On-demand car services, like Uber, likely will rely entirely on self-driving cars in the future, the report adds.

And those looking for jobs at a factory need to have computer skills now. Yet fewer than 15 percent of the 10,000 applicants who attended a job fair at Siemens Energy, in Charlotte, N.C., were qualified for positions at the company, with ninth-grade level reading, writing, and math skills, according to The New York Times. The article goes on to say John Deere also has trouble filling its factory positions, because building and fixing tractors and grain harvesters now requires advanced math and comprehension skills.

Those working physical labor jobs are not the only ones who should be concerned. Software capable of analyzing large volumes of legal documents is expected to drastically reduce the number of paralegals, according to a Law.com article. And as such software programs advance, people with other occupations, like accountants, could become easily replaced.

The question of identity

To me, the questions of widespread unemployment and unrest is a civilizational valley that we need to get out of, but if and when we do, what happens?

When someone asks you for your introduction, one of the major things that you say about yourself is “what do you do for a living”. That is a source of our self worth and identity. And why not, when a majority of our waking hours are spent at work, and most of our social connections and relationships stem from the workplace. But does it need to be so?

Traditionally, as a financial ecosystem, the prosperity of any given civil unit is governed by the wealth creation per capita, as well as the availability of leisure time to enjoy the fruits of the collective labour. This manifests itself as the various kinds of signalling that we undertake to demonstrate our worth to others, which is largely proportional to the wealth that we have created for the society itself. Extrapolating the premise of reduced working hours and increasing leisure time for the same wealth creation potential, it is reasonable to assume that most of the members of our society may not *need* to work for a living, if sufficient wealth is being created using automation. This will tie into the already existent concept of universal full basic income (UBI). According to Wikipedia:

basic income, also called basic income guaranteeuniversal basic income(UBI), basic living stipend (BLS), or universal demogrant, is a type of program in which citizens (or permanent residents) of a country may receive a regular sum of money from a source such as the government. A pure or unconditional basic income has no means test, much like Social Security in the United States.

An unconditional income that is sufficient to meet a person’s basic needs (at or above the poverty line), is called full basic income, while if it is less than that amount, it is called partial.

Given that the wealth creation by increased automation is sufficient to ensure a UBI for all the citizens, it opens up a wealth of possibilities. How many people do you know who loath their jobs but have to persist doing the same all their lives for obvious reasons? Now, if those people are assured of living comfortably, vistas of human well being open up.

Would you be able to hold an employee to do your drudge work if they could just hop off to their life’s calling without risking their ability to put food on the table? Employee engagement takes on a new importance here. Also the need for meaningful work, with the Autonomy, Mastery and purpose (Dan Pink’s Drive, for more info on these) baked into the assignment. Lest you do that, you risk losing people to other pursuits. However, would there be people who choose to do *nothing*? I think, no, but some people think ,yes. Time will tell. To risk sounding biased towards a “no”, I think the hitherto non-lucrative creative work will come to the fore in this situation. Probably people would wish to pursue fine arts, or science or anything that elevates the human condition without risk. Would that be true freedom in the financial sense?

How does our education system address these issues and the ability to live and thrive in such a society of abundance that the search of meaning in life is divorced from the mundane considerations of putting bread on the table? Studying for the exams and the subsequent piece of paper may well be passe. The really successful and happy people will be the ones who know where their life’s passions lie and are willing to pursue those. They will be people with the right questions, even if they don’t have the right answers.

All this is very Utopian, but it is the intermediate steps to getting there that worries me!

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