Robots, Jobs, Satisfaction and Innovation

By on April 12th, 2013 in Ethics, Societal Impact, Topics

An IEEE Spectrum podcast with Henrik Christensen of Georgia Tech asserts that Robots are not destroying jobs.  This is to counter an earlier assertion by Rice University Professor Moshe Vardi that “by 2045, machines will be able to do if not any work that humans can do, then a very significant fraction of the work that humans can do.”

Christensen admits that earlier phases of technology made some jobs obsolete, but at the same time created new opportunities.  Farmers move into factories, factory workers into Walmart, and so forth. There are some serious problems with this model, even if it is true. First, humans are motivated by things other than “jobs” (when they  have enough to eat and a place to stay) — so simply moving from “x” to “X + 1” employees does not assure job satisfaction.  There are some who would argue that the farmer was far more satisfied than the factory worker.  Dan Pink asserts that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the real motivators, and one can ask how these are satisfied by the transition of careers over time. In his recent book, The Future, Al Gore argues that RoboSourcing on a global basis will decrease the available jobs on a global basis … something the world has not previously experienced.

In the United States, we are seeing economic growth via significantly increased productivity with a much smaller increase in employment.  In my state of New Hampshire, we have had less impact in terms of job loss, but the job growth has been in lower paying jobs.  Perhaps most painfully, the jobs in New Hampshire have been operational not innovational.  Even the good paying jobs in management, or accounting cannot match engineering and technology for innovation.  This is important since the quality of future jobs grows from the soil of existing ones.  Some years ago our largest employer was Digital Equipment (don’t just think VAX, realize Digital also created the Altavista search engine, the first 64bit chip, and StrongARM – a high performance precursor for handhelds and smart phones — all innovations capitalized upon by others, and not in New England) — now the largest employer is Walmart.  Needless to say, we are setting the foundation for a quite different future at this point.

If Vardi is right, it is not clear that in 2045 we will find robots and machine intelligence doing the innovation, but clearly they  will be doing much of the operation work.  If AI’s emerge into the domain of innovation and consciousness, etc. then it is not clear they will be subservient to human needs.  So, we can expect that humans will be the key source of innovation to meet human needs for the foreseeable future.

This does not assure “full employment” as we currently define it.  It is possible that robots will free humans to pursue many activities previously considered “leisure” … for example farming… oh, excuse me, gardening, or art, or other creative pursuits.  However, this also  assumes that people will have their basic needs met (food, shelter, etc.) that permits these pursuits — and the economic models in most countries today seem to involve increased income for management and shareholders and increased unemployment for the work force.  Countries with large populations of unemployed, hungry young adults tend to have significant instabilities.  Oddly revolutions meet all of Pink’s motivational factors: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (perhaps a bit weak on mastery until they have been active for a while.)

One social consideration for the evolution of technology is aligning the future of employment, and the economic system to increase satisfaction, rather than dis-satisfaction.  Do you expect to be satisfied with our future?