Technological Unemployment: The Jobless Recovery

The CBS program 60 minutes just recently featured two MIT economists who addressed why unemployment has been so stubborn.  Millions of workers are being displaced by technology, whether it be robots, software, or algorithms.  They’re projecting that within a few generations, most all jobs will be done by machines and human workers will be unnecessary.  The big question rises – how will people earn a living?  Will we have to abandon money and capitalism as we know them today?

They say Henry Ford paid his workers well because he realized that if there was nobody with money to buy his products, he wouldn’t even be in business to begin with.  If nearly everything is automated but nobody can earn money to buy the products being produced, it makes you wonder how things will end up.

The other day I posted a video showing wealth inequality as it exists today.  Most all of the money and wealth is controlled by the top 10% of Americans, with 1% having nearly 40% of all wealth.  That number is on the rise every day.  The middle class is fading away, barely distinguishable from the poor.  80% of the people combined only control 7% of the wealth.

Our economic system today isn’t working and if we don’t wake up to this reality, it’s only going to get worse.  The big question is what we can do to fix things?  I don’t have a clue what we need to do and I don’t expect it’s going to be fixed.  The rich and powerful control the political process and as we’ve seen over the past years, they have no interest in taking care of the people who are suffering.  They will find every way imaginable to avoid paying taxes and the government coffers will go dry.  The middle class will have no money left to squeeze out of them and people will simply have to do without.

I can give you some tips though — learn engineering, software development, and robotics.  Get involved in biotechnology or nanotechnology.  Do work in artificial intelligence, genetics, or materials science.  Things like that.  You’ll be building these machines and the technology which underlies them, and you’ll be set for the next forty or fifty years.   Assuming I live a normal life, that’s about the rest of my life.  I’ve been positioning myself well for this coming storm.  I have the skills this economy needs so I won’t have any problems.  I can program robots, write software, do complex engineering, research AI, build robotics, design circuitry and computer processors, memory, etc.  I’m just fine.

I worry about other people though.  Already the bottom 40% of Americans are so poor, they have next to no wealth at all.  They’re just buried in debts, living paycheck to paycheck.  Now the middle class is falling into that pit as well, and the bottom 60% of Americans combined barely have anything.  What a mess.  I don’t know things will end up, but I doubt it’s going to be good.  We’re living through a time of great transition, where human society will likely be reborn into something completely different than it is today.  Birth processes are rarely fun experiences.

4 thoughts on “Technological Unemployment: The Jobless Recovery”

  1. Jason, I wouldn’t be too sanguine that even brilliant and technically minded people such as yourself will always “be set.” For I can well imagine that even most of the engineering, software development, and other types of jobs you mentioned will eventually be performed mostly by computers and robots.

    Thus, I suspect that we WILL, to use your words, “have to abandon money and capitalism as we know them today” and end up paying everyone a guaranteed livable wage based on the productive work machines do on our behalf and then pay extra for work people do that machines can’t do.

    But I think you’re right that the transition to this kind of economy is going to be exceedingly painful for the majority of us who don’t possess your high IQ and formidable talent for science and technology. As much as I don’t want to be pessimistic, I think many of us are screwed.

    1. Steve, I think what’s happening is terrible. I also believe we need to start implementing policies that give people a living wage regardless of whether they’re even working or not. All of the money will go to whoever owns the machines and factories and the people will have less and less. The only thing to do is tax the rich, but they won’t give way without a fight. They hold Ayn Rand’ish libertarian ideas and they won’t cooperate with any of that.

      President Obama just recently announced funding a human genome style project for researching the brain. It’s exciting, and I’m sure it will lead to huge advances in understanding how the mind works and implementing those algorithms in machines. However, that’ll only push all of this faster and faster, for better or for worse. The science is amazing, and there’s no doubt we need to be doing it, but can our social institutions keep up?

      We’re really at a crossroads. We can finally be rid of toil and boring jobs, free to pursue more creative things and just enjoy life. But our economic system is pushing us away from that. We’re instead working harder, trying to get an education so that we can compete with the machines we ourselves are researching and building, mostly from publicly funded research! We fund the AI lab at Stanford and then companies turn that research into commercial machines which take our factory jobs. All the savings and profits go to the 1%.

      I just look around me, at restaurants, fast food chains, super markets, retail stores, and so on, and think to myself, “all of these people are going to be unemployed very soon.” Robots today are almost primed up and ready to be packing boxes, stocking shelves, making hamburgers, and so on. Once you train one of them, you’ve trained all of them. They never quit, never get tired, are never sick, and don’t need breaks… oh, and they’ll work for $3.00 an hour, and that number will only be going down.

      Don’t get me wrong — they’ll replace scientists like me as well. It’ll take longer to get creativity and difficult thought into the machines, but it’ll come. I expect human levels of intelligence in machines by 2030~2050. I’ll be retired by that time, and as long as the entire economy hasn’t been trashed, I figured I’d be ok. I’ve thought long and hard about how to prepare for all of this, and it’s the best I’ve been able to do for myself. But who knows, really. Each year Siri, Watson, and Google’s AI will only get smarter and better. Processing power will increase, amounts of memory will increase, and algorithms will better mimic the brain (or possibly use algorithms which are BETTER than our own brain).

      I wrote that post “Talking with Imaginary Friends”. It’s how I imagine AI will be when I’m old. I can just project artificial beings into either my glasses or into my sensory stream (based on brain implants) and they’ll be wonderful, thoughtful creatures. Computers may well be programming themselves, and they’ll be doing their own engineering eventually. They’ll be personal assistants and friends, helping us do what we need to do. I hope they’re affordable because I want one to take care of me when I’m old and feeble.

      I daydream about it. I wish I had implants in my brain which supplemented my thought. Tap my mind into this big database of human knowledge and no longer have things like school. I never have to read books. I’m connected to this giant super mind, and everyone else is as well. We can all communicate telepathically over this network, sharing experiences, asking each other questions, and helping one another. It’d be like the internet but where the data isn’t formatted in words but instead uses the same information “language” as our brain.

      It’s like what Alan Watts talked about in a lot of his lectures. Our brains’ have this massively parallel architecture that takes in everything at once, yet reading symbols on pages, spoken language, and even pictures are a very slow form of communication. It takes forever to process all those words and symbols and translate them into the language our brain uses. If the data structures of the brain were known (which is what Obama’s research will lead to), and we understood how it all worked, we could all have implants and instantly communicate complex thought and expressions to on another instantly. No “learning” and no dependence on the vague interpretation of words.

      They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the same way, direct “thought” uploads will be like a 1000 movies. I think we’re moving to a species which communicates by experience and thought sharing. But if you sit and think it all though, you quickly realize that it requires us to completely rethink what it means to be a human being.

  2. Jason, I love reading your blogposts and comments! You have such a broad understanding of the world as it is and as it’s becoming. I wish we could replace the Tea Party and many other politicians in Congress with people like you. But then people like you would want no part of Congress and its political games.

    I hope you always have a niche in our ever-shifting economy, and I think your optimism that you will is realistic. But I also think we’ll have a serious, serious problem finding gainful employment for almost everyone in the not-too-distant future. Even the great Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to appreciate this when he discounts the problems of “structural” as opposed to “cyclical” unemployment.

    Yet, it seems to me that someday we’ll need to find ways of putting sufficient money into the hands of a public that can’t earn money by working jobs that machines have taken from them. Otherwise, who will buy the goods and services offered by the proverbial %1 who own and program the machines?

  3. From, with permission:

    We all want to cheer every time a robot puts someone out of work. Work should be optional given the productivity gains we are seeing and the cost of living. Our governments should be spending more of our tax-dollars on something many seem to want. I’m for robotics that are owned by all of the citizens of a country. Fully automated robotics factories, with self replicating robotic arms. Highly automated renewable energy, windmills or underwater water mills. Highly automated steel production. Highly automated chip manufacturing, and Linux. I’ve seen some automated building manufacturing companies starting up as well. Other prerequisite products can eventually be manufactured as well. All source code and blueprints have to be fully owned with rights to an infinite amount of use. All owned by the citizens of the country concerned. Small factories at first, with all of the bugs worked out, so that it largely builds itself in the end. It should be affordable, I’m an economic conservative. Eventually the complex can produce consumer goods besides steel, energy, chips, buildings, and robotics. Charities and the open source community can help as well. I support liberal licensing agreements of source code and blueprints, to allow royalty free replication. Surpluses could be sold to pay for additional engineering by those ambitious. Revenues would be paid to those citizens who have invested. Continued exponential self-replication would eventually lead to true post-scarcity, for every citizen of a country.

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