Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Future of Work

Last week I went to a Lib Dem policy discussion on 'The Future of Work' - discussing policy positions on the oncoming disruptive changes in employment caused by increased automation and more powerful software algorithms.

It was an interesting evening - we didn't come to any firm conclusions, but one thing was clear - the current economic and political systems are incapable of dealing with the forthcoming revolution in work, production, employment and economics. Without policies to help mitigate or smooth the changes, we risk an unprecedented consolidation of power that will be very hard to reverse.

Briefly, a bit of background. Over the past couple of decades, computers have become more and more adept at tasks that previously humans would do, and they are often better at it than us. Slowly our society and economy has become more computer-centric. Now, in the next few years, these changes will start moving into the physical world - driverless cars and 3D printers being the obvious examples. What will happen when these new tools become as ubiqutous as smartphones and algorithms are now? What will happen when whole sectors of the economy are replaced by computers and machines?

These changes are covered in much more detail in books such as Homo Deus and The Economic Singularity, but the conclusions are clear - we are on the verge of a fundamental change in how our world works, and we need to work out how to deal with it before it happens.

Now, obviously, we're dealing with the future here. This could all be rendered incorrect by some changes that we're not aware of at the moment. But the signs are increasingly pointing towards an economic shift that we haven't prepared for, and that have some troubling consequences.

The most obvious change is that, maybe, 10-20% of existing jobs could be replaced by computers (although some say it's much higher). That immediately raises the question of what happens to all those people who are suddenly out of a job, or, if part-time work becomes the norm, what everyone will do with their free time.

There is an argument that, just like in the industrial revolution, new jobs will be created that will fill the void. However, I would argue this is a quite different situation - we're on the verge of changes that will render the entire supply chain - design (algorithic iteration), raw material extraction, manufacture/assembly (3D printing, automated production), transport (driverless cars, drones), and waste disposal - requiring very few or no people involved on a day-to-day basis. The only role of humans would be consuming the manufactured goods in the middle. The economy would change from being human-centric to computer-centric - humans would just be a small part of the great machine we've built up around us. There wouldn't be many people required to keep the whole thing ticking along. This is in contrast to the industrial revolution, which supercharged the existing economic system, allowing human actions to be amplified far beyond what people could do by themselves.

This would mean that we could have a significant proportion of the population not needed to do anything, and the economy would happily carry on regardless. You could 3D-print most items, food would be grown, new products designed, with a minimal amount of human input.

However, the current economic and political systems are based on the premise that it is better to have a job than not, and a full-time job is better than a part-time job. Will we just end up with busywork; jobs existing for their own sake? What will happen to the wellbeing of such people doing 'useless' jobs? Or, if more and more people start to go part-time, what will they do with all their free time? Will you still be defined, and derive your self-image, largely from your job? What about income - how will the economy still run when the amount of cumulative income across the country drops? The need of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' becomes superfluous, as the economy can still happily carry on with most people working 50% of the time.

But the Protestant Work Ethic is what our government, society, self-image, and indeed what capitalism itself is based on! When the government is aways seeking to lower unemployment numbers and to get people into work, what will happen to those ideals when the jobs simply become unneeded and superfluous? Is it even possible for the mind-set of the Conservative and Labour parties to adapt to these changes? What will that mean for government policy?

One idea which was brought up very early on was the 'Citizens Income' - giving everyone a basic income irregardless of situation, need, or other income sources (it's already getting a few small-scale trials in a few countries). However, any large-scale implemetation of such an idea has some significant issues - where does all the money come from? Will we need to massively tax the well-off to pay for the Citizens Income to the rest of the population? What does that do to concepts of 'fairness' and capitalist fundamentals of 'you keep what you earn'? And how do we get there from where we are now?

Moving the focus to the owners of the computers - moving more and more of the economy to computers and machines gives a huge amount of power to the people and the companies that control and own said computers - but that is where our economy is going, based on the current ideas of ownership and control that have been the basis of our society and legal system for the past 200 years. The network effects that have given Google, Facebook, and Twitter so much power will be amplified by the move into the real world. Left unchecked, we'll be in a dystopic situation of the 'Gods and the useless' - a few people control the machines, with most people just consuming the products of those machines. And there would be nothing that they could do to wrest power away from those at the top, as they control everything (see China's Social Credit System). And if they attempt to disrupt, they risk destroying the basis of the entire economy.

But that situation follows on directly from our existing capitalist ideals of ownership and control. To avoid the 'Gods and the useless' requires work now to change our societal ideals and goals. And no one's sure that is possible, or how we go about doing it. But it does and it will affect everything, and any future policy, produced by the Lib Dems or anyone else, has to bear this in mind, else it will simply be irrelevant.

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