APTOPIX_South_Africa_Miners_Strike-07651In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers revived a debate I’d had with futurist Ray Kurzweil in 2012 about the jobless future.

He echoed the words of Peter Diamandis, who says that we are moving from a history of scarcity to an era of abundance. Then he noted that the technologies that make such abundance possible are allowing production of far more output using far fewer people.

On all this, Summers is right. Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores.

There won’t be much work for human beings. Self-driving cars will be commercially available by the end of this decade and will eventually displace human drivers—just as automobiles displaced the horse and buggy—and will eliminate the jobs of taxi, bus, and truck drivers. Drones will take the jobs of postmen and delivery people.

The debates of the next decade will be about whether we should allow human beings to drive at all on public roads. The pesky humans crash into each other, suffer from road rage, rush headlong into traffic jams, and need to be monitored by traffic police. Yes, we won’t need traffic cops either.

Robots are already replacing manufacturing workers. Industrial robots have advanced to the point at which they can do the same physical work as human beings. The operating cost of some robots is now less than the salary of an average Chinese worker. And, unlike human beings, robots don’t complain, join labor unions, or get distracted. They readily work 24 hours a day and require minimal maintenance. Robots will also take the jobs of farmers, pharmacists, and grocery clerks.

Medical sensors in our smartphones, clothing, and bathrooms will soon be monitoring our health on a minute-to-minute basis. Combined with electronic medical records and genetic and lifestyle data, these will provide enough information for physicians to focus on preventing disease rather than on curing it.

If medications are needed, they can be prescribed based on a person’s genome rather than a one-size-fits-all basis as they are today. The problem is that there is now so much information that humans cannot effectively analyze it. But artificial intelligence–based physicians such as IBM Watson can. The role of the doctor becomes to provide comfort and compassion—not to diagnose disease or to prescribe medications. In other words, computers will be also taking over some of the jobs of our doctors, and we won’t need as many human doctors as we have today.

It will be like the future that Autodesk CEO Carl Bass once described to me: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Summers is wrong, however, in his belief that governments can do as they did in the industrial age: create “enough work for all who need work for income, purchasing power and dignity.” They can barely keep up with the advances that are happening in technology, let alone develop economic policies for employment. Even the courts are struggling to understand the legal and ethical issues of advancing technologies.

Neither they nor our policy makers have come to grips with how to protect our data and personal information, control cable and Internet monopolies, regulate advances in genetics and medicine, and tax the sharing economy that companies such as Uber and AirBnb inhabit. How are policy makers going to grapple with entire industries’ disruptions in periods that are shorter than election cycles? The industrial age lasted a century, and its consequent changes have happened over generations. Now we have startups in Silicon Valley shaking up bedrock industries such as cable and broadcasting, hotels, and transportation.

The writing is clearly on the wall about what lies ahead. Yet even the most brilliant economists—and futurists—don’t know what to do about it.

In his debate with me, Kurzweil said: “Automation always eliminates more jobs than it creates if you only look at the circumstances narrowly surrounding the automation. That’s what the Luddites saw in the early 19th century in the textile industry in England. The new jobs came from increased prosperity and new industries that were not seen.” Kurzweil’s key argument was that just as we could not predict that types of jobs that were created, we can’t predict what is to come.

Kurzweil is right, but the problem is that no matter what the jobs of the future are, they will surely require greater skill and education—robots can do all the grunt work. Manufacturers who want to bring production back already complain that they can’t find enough skilled workers in the U.S. for their automated factories. Technology companies that write the software also complain about shortages of workers with the skills that they need. We won’t be able to retrain the majority of the workforce fast enough to take the new jobs in emerging industries. During the industrial revolution, it was the younger generations who were trained—not the older workers.

The only solution that I see is a shrinking work week. We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today. And with the prices of necessities and of what we today consider luxury goods dropping exponentially, we may not need the entire population to be working. There is surely a possibility for social unrest because of this; but we could also create the utopian future we have long dreamed of, with a large part of humanity focused on creativity and enlightenment.

Regardless, at best we have another 10 to 15 years in which there is a role for humans. The number of available jobs will actually increase in the U.S. and Europe before it decreases. China is out of time because it has a manufacturing-based economy, and those jobs are already disappearing. Ironically, China is accelerating this demise by embracing robotics and 3D printing. As manufacturing comes back to the U.S., new factories need to be built, robots need to be programmed, and new infrastructure needs to be developed. To install new hardware and software on existing cars to make them self-driving, we will need many new auto mechanics. We need to manufacture the new medical sensors, install increasingly efficient solar panels, and write new automation software.

So the future is very bright for some countries in the short term, and in the long term is uncertain for all. The only certainty is that much change lies ahead that no one really knows how to prepare for.

  • Manish Bhan

    Vivek and all those who commented – Thanks . Such articles are a breath of fresh air .

    My clueless 2 cent’s

    Big question !

    After we automate today’s job , what next ?

    To me the answer is quiet simple, we will be doing tomorrow’s job and they will be lot more numerous than we can imagine today.

    To your point and to others point . Jobs of tomorrow would focus on creativity ,enlightenment ,contribute to NPV, fighting towards unstable economy, human capacity development ,personal innovation , exploring outer space and other new areas that we cannot simply fathom and affirm today .

    We are eternally needy species who dream to survive, our needs will evolve and so will our challenges, by the mess we create.Like in past, these basic instincts will keep us busy as long as we exist. Bare in mind ,our key driver is our emotion and no logic. . Hypothetically, if robots would threaten our presence beyond a point , they simple will not be promoted and any group who promotes them will be disengaged.

    I do however feel that the infrastructure to make us capable of the jobs of the future has to be created and will be created with goals of future technologies eventually pivoting from developing resources for sustaining humans to developing human themselves.After information age we will entering into human age where focus will be on humans.

    Talent the way it is developed and defined today will change altogether. Talk about making human talent programmable ,talk about manufacturing talent, talk about cloning talent . Unfortunately or fortunately we all will be programmable workers and surprisingly way more efficient and creative than we are today .

  • seanhunt

    Admittedly automation was one of the hardest of the problems I tried to solve. Occupation has been the basis of status and identity since the time of the tribes. Ask an anthropologist the importance of status… and it’s going to go away. If that was the only problem it would be bad enough, but it is only part of far more. At the same time, we are seeing the disruption of many institutions we have relied on including religion, industry, politics and economics. We are seeing scary looking things happening in the environment and problem after problem facing society is coming into view. Medical researchers say we are in great danger of pandemics. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is not yet recognized, though the research is coming in on it and soon someone is going to figure out that one like I did long ago. The problem is we do not see a path to the future that looks real good. Our images of the future are dystopian, often of wastelands with no trace of civilization. If you are a parent, you must worry for your children. I’ve spent over 4 decades trying to solve these problems. The thing is that all these problems are related and they must all be solved together. There is only one way to organize and relate them all. That is to look at them as ecology, the study of a specie’s survival. It is very revealing, especially because it really is the basic problem. We have left behind the ecology we are most adapted to, the so called hunter gatherer and have been developing through transient ecologies ever since. A specie without a stable ecology is generally known as extinct. We must create and adapt to a new long term “stable” ecology. If you want to know the path, I did publish a book on it.. at Amazon called “Transition To A New Human Ecology” – Michael Breeden. The dangers are great, but the potentials are more than our Aspirations (Chapter 7;) Take a gander if you like.
    http://www.amazon.com/Transition-To-New-Human-Ecology-ebook/dp/B00K61A64S

    I am working on the second book “Civilization, The New Human Ecology”. It is a bit difficult, but I think I have a path that will work.
    .

  • Raghuramji

    Basically Why should we work?

    Lot of persons think that,

    If we can’t work, we can’t earn.

    If we can’t earn, we can’t spend money.

    If we can’t spend money, we can’t buy food or the necessary things to live.

    I don’t believe in these.

    If we get food or the necessary things for free, why should we work?

    As per the current trend in TamilNadu, INDIA, I can say that, if a government gives the necessary things for free, nobody will work. I can see that happens in many places in INDIA particularly Tamil Nadu. Here farmers face a major labour shortage problem due to the number of free schemes made by government.

    Nobody likes to work for the sake of money, if they got everything needed for free. Some of us may think, how is it possible to get all for free? Automation will make that happen some time soon.

    According to me, everybody should work for the sake of their own will and not for money.

    Why do we go for automation?

    We don’t want our fellow person to do a difficult/repeated manual job for the sake of money. By that way, we are creating a labour free world. In a labour free world, Humans has to think creatively and make things easier for our next generation. If we are not a person of that kind, we can do some manual work for the sake of our health and mind, not for money.

  • Raghuramji

    Vivek,

    I just shared my thoughts here http://raghuramji.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/automation-leads-to-a-jobless-future-for-the-benefit-of-human-being/

    Have a look and let me know your thoughts.

  • Pingback: Automation leads to a Jobless Future for the benefit of human being | raghuramji

  • http://www.robotaton.com Robotaton

    A great article. This guy is right on. My prediction is the spark where
    this really tanks the economy as we know it will be in the early 2020s.

  • AGK

    We are definitely in the greatest economic transition since we left the agricultural economy to build the industrial economy. And ultimately this is a good thing but it will be a very bumpy transition because we are moving from a “Quantity of Stuff economy to a Quality of Life economy”. I call it an “Integrative Economy”. We will need to measure far more than the GDP, we will need to recognize the ‘non-profit sector’ as a separate work sector that can be invested into in new ways (see B corporations as one example) and we will need to redefine wealth accumulation beyond the traditional money, property, possessions and power to include sharing (already happening), relationships and new currencies/trade mechanisms. If we implement these three things, it opens up many possibilities for employment and creating a vibrant economy.

    One other major that will also have to happen is recognizing how important ‘human capacity development’ will be in creating this next economy. We take for granted that babies are born and grow up to be adults—but actually humans have to be taught to be human. This requires us to see human capacity development as one of the most important jobs of the future. We have made great strides in this knowledge over the last 50 years–but we have barely tapped human potential and we continue to birth babies and let human capacity development be a ‘crap shoot’ . Some kids get great human capacity development but far too many, most really, do not. We can change that and if we do, we will build an economy that engages everyone with the capacity of taking responsibility for being a part of building the economy they live in,

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      Good thoughts…

  • Sandwichman

    I agree with much of what you say here, especially about shrinking the work week. Keynes recommended this back in 1930 and again in 1944-45. I’ve been an advocate for 20 years. I’m not sure, though, if you appreciate the long-standing, deep-seated antagonism toward that solution by the high priests of capitalism, the economists. I’ve documented that resistance in several papers on the so-called “lump-of-labor fallacy” and have just posted a series tracing the history of the fallacy claim and its relationship to economic orthodoxy. http://www.scribd.com/doc/235696138/Supply-Creates-Its-Own-Demon-SCIOD

  • Andy Gardner

    Really interesting article. As a Careers Adviser working in the UK who works mainly with sixth formers (high school diploma ) I feel it is my job to communicate in a understandable way your points without scaring the life out them. So many students are still making career decisions due to family and cultural influences, I call it ‘medlaw’ syndrome. When set against IBM Watson this makes for an interesting /scary future. As we know the law of unintended consequences may well apply and IBM Watson may well kill me off!
    Yours
    Andy Gardner

  • LuisFer

    When all the people are not working and life supposingly would be easy, how would this unemployed person is going to be able to afford the living if there is no work? How this person will be able to have income to have all the needs of a normal life?That is the question. I know that the advances in technology are there, that we could live a great life where all the work can be performed by machines. But what is the cost and who would be able to afford this living? I am an engineer with 35 years experience but this economy has kept me unemployed for long time, when I get e job only lasts three months, once is complete I get laid off and back to get a new job. Is that the future of most workers? Specially at my level? I know my future is work until you drop because retirement would not be enough for me to live on. Do you understand all the implications of what I am talking about?

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      I do understand and this worries me. What some people say is that we will create a safety net. With this and the dropping costs, we will be able to look after the population. My worry is that technology is advancing exponentially, but humanity is not.

      Frankly, I don’t have the answers.

  • Larry Chang

    In a 2011 paper i wrote, proposing a Planetary Index:

    “We may expect billions of current wage earners to quit drudgery jobs they hold just to make ends meet. With basic needs taken care of, they will be free to develop their natural talents and pursuits all the while contributing to Net Planetary Value (NPV). Careers will be replaced by vocations. The evaporation of the financial sector will release number-crunchers to serve Value rather than Mammon in new roles of assessment, valorization, and compliance. Mechanization of routine jobs will increase but there will always be room for casual and temporary labor and persons willing to engage in them whether to increase their access to value or just to have structured activity. Some may find fulfillment and meaning in menial tasks. Emancipation from wage slavery will liberate humans to pursue lifelong learning, develop aptitudes and become more engaged in
    governance and community building.”

    http://netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      Fabulous predictions.

  • Ron R.

    Great article! What about the thought of any job-eliminating robot or process being taxed on a small percentage basis into the government Social Security fund to help care for the people losing employment?

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      We may well need something like that…

    • May

      Good thought, but the system is going to have to allow for the productive side to live a better life style than the unproductive side. Otherwise, the productive side will shut down.

      • Ron

        I would like to see progressing technologies fund sources to help PEOPLE or society in general, not just profit the manufacturing or production sectors. As robots become the productive parts of society, we still need to provide for PEOPLE. People who lose jobs still need the means to pursue interests, leisure activities, or private business start-ups once robots replace their employment. Some sort of tax or stipend or fee on technology-replaced jobs would insure that there is funding for the changes occurring in society.

        • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

          Ron, you are right. We have yet to figure all this out…

  • pjpd

    Vivek

    I wrote a two part article about this a few weeks ago… and gave some thoughts on what the future holds and I agree we will have to work fewer hours
    http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2014/06/27/the-coming-workless-future/
    http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2014/06/27/personalized-innovation-in-a-workless-future/

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      Those are excellent articles—particularly the second…thx

  • Peter Gold

    Guess what. Government is law and order so as people can be free to think,work,eat and live. People create government, people create jobs, people group together to do what they can not do individually. Only ten thousand children die of starvation a day that could be prevented if man and the world religions allowed 12 year old girls to have birth control pills to prevent conception of children they have no milk in their breasts to feed since they too are near starvation. Maybe it is time to have the world run by woman and make men the employees of women to allow full employment of men.

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      Peter that is a radical solution that I won’t argue with.

  • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

    Most of us simply are blind to the many jobs out there waiting to be done. Here’s an example. In every advanced country rated at least partially free, there is a theory that the people are supposed to oversee or at least consent to government. The US is an extreme case of this. With its dual sovereignty system and 51 definitions of what a government is, the number of institutions to be overseen travels well into six figures. The task is so big, so daunting, that nobody actually does it and the most simple management reports that a private sector manager would expect as a bare minimum are simply not available to the voter.

    US government sector spending is ~40% of GDP. Other 1st world free countries the percentage can actually be higher. This task, by itself, will absorb enormous numbers of people fixing it. It is a task, until the emergence of open source business intelligence tools in the past decade and the near future emergence of the internet of things and autonomous sensors that can actually provide independent means of verifying government claims, that was impossible. In the near future because of the automation that is coming, it will start to be possible.

    If that is not enough, space is starting to be opened up. Within the next two years we are likely to see multiple private rocket companies reach orbit and start commercial operations. The cost of space is cratering with the emergence of reusable rocket technology like that pioneered by SpaceX. You can just dimly see a future of moving manufacturing into space with a plethora of new jobs being created.

    We’ve only started to scratch the surface of the material science possibilities made by new materials coming on line. We have no idea what will be made possible by inventions such as the recently commercialized supercapacitors that just entered the market last year. Everybody predicted that they would revolutionize transport and they might one day. But the first application is revolutionizing oil and gas drilling, an application out of left field and in line with the owners’ interest in making practical deep hole geothermal drilling.

    The future is bright, if the politicians don’t panic and set up a gargantuan welfare apparatus for a jobless future that isn’t coming and choke that brighter, job filled future off by wrecking the ability of the market to fund it.

    • http://www.wadhwa.com/ Vivek Wadhwa

      Interesting thoughts…thx

  • nlcatter

    will? it is already a fact. robots build cars, detroit is bankrupt.