A frightening prospect is spreading through stories about a new industrial revolution where machines, artificial intelligence and automation will create a huge disruption in the job market. Robots and algorithms will make many job types obsolete, leaving millions of people without jobs. For the first time in history, the industry is not creating near enough new jobs needed to meet the number of jobs that will be lost. As a result, a huge number of people will be pushed into poverty, causing massive unrests.
Recent developments in narrow AI (artificial intelligence), especially in healthcare and transport industry, threaten millions of jobs. Is this a problem?
It all depends on perspective.
Following are two stories; each story will have different outcome, choose the one you like more.
In some faraway world, there was a small village, a home for a population of around a hundred people, situated on the hill near a beautiful valley with a small river lazily passing though its center. It looks at a valley gently tucked in by the surrounding woods — a home for abundant wild life.
The entire village made their living growing their own apples and everything else those trees could offer.
One day, one villager got a very clever idea. Instead of growing apples in the villagers’ individual gardens, why not plant a community apple orchard in the nearby valley? This would be more efficient and they could grow more apples by working less. However, he kept his idea for himself.
Instead, he formed a company and said, “Come to work for me. You will work less and take more apples home.”
He did not lie. Jobs became more specialized. Every apple tree needed care; watering, soil tilling and raking, pruning, and when ripe — apple picking. Then, when trees were dead or old and needed cutting, there was a job for that. Each job had dedicated people who knew how to do their jobs better than anyone else. No single person had to do everything as they had when they were working for themselves.
Working on their own, no single person could produce more than 100 apples, but with this setup they were producing 170 apples each. As promised, the owner gave them 150 apples each, and kept only 20 apples for himself from each person’s yield. Everyone was happy since they were taking home so much more. After each harvest, the owner invested all of his apples into buying land from his workers, with the ultimate goal of extending his orchard and increasing production.
After expanding his land and planting new trees, the owner said to himself, “I could probably do even more.” And he spent a lot of time planning how to do it. One day, during his hunting trip through the surrounding woods, he got an idea. “All this land is covered with wild woods. They do not have any fruits, so they are useless. If I chop them down I can expand my orchards.” Soon after, the surrounding woods began shrinking due to the collective efforts of all the wood cutters.
While the owner extended his land as much as he could, the land where the wild woods once proudly stood was not as fertile as the one in the valley, so many parts of the now naked land could not grow apple trees, and as land eroded, it could not regrow the wild woods either.
The owner was not bothered by this too much. However, slightly distracted by this setback, he turned his mind toward optimizing production, as he knew things could always be done faster.
At this time, none of villagers owned their own land anymore, but they were happy since the owner had increased their “salaries” by giving every person 250 apples to take home after each harvest. Even though the company was producing 350 apples per each worker, no one was complaining and everyone was happy.
But now there was one problem. When the villagers had owned their own land and apple trees, for they would use the old ones for firewood. Now that they did not own any land or trees, and they need wood for the winter, so they asked their boss for advice. He said, “This is what we will do. Every time you need firewood, you will give me one of your apples back, and I will give you the firewood.” And again they were happy. They could not spend as much as before, but after firewood costs, they were still earning an amazing 230 apples, so they were still happy.
While everyone was working, the owner had lots of free time on his hands, so he would invent lots of new things: apple pies, pickled apples, jams, marmalades, apple baskets, chandeliers, comfy seats and many other goodies. Other people wanted to try these new products and the owner simply said, “Same rule applies.” Whenever they wanted one of the new products, they gave up more of their take-home apples.
But soon, the owner realized that even with all his free time, he could not meet the demand of the new products, so he created a small factory for more workers to be in charge of making his inventions. It was an amazing success.
After a few years the company was so productive that it was yielding 2700 apples per person. The workers remained happy, because all had their salaries had increased to a staggering 310 apples per harvest. That was three times as many they could ever produce on their own, although at this point they were working bit longer than before in order to keep up with the demand for all of the new inventions being produced at the factory. And being so successful, the factory grew.
And people were spending their earned apples to buy other products: pies, firewood, trunks, furniture...
The village grew, and people were happy, so they started their own families and many children were born. Many families had five or six children. The owner was happy too, since he knew that every newborn baby in the village would one day be a new worker in his orchard or factory too.
No one noticed the subtle change. While the owner’s opportunities continued to grow, the villagers had less than a few. The first person to realize this was Ned, who was discharged because of a petty mistake he made. Unable to afford anything, he soon found himself homeless — scavenging for any food he could get from whatever was left of the once wild woods. He could not find any other job as there were none on this side of the world. None of other villagers understood Ned; in fact they blamed him for his circumstances, saying that everything was probably his fault, and that hardship he was going through was an appropriate punishment for the mistakes he made.
Meanwhile, the owner was wondering about new ways to make even more. One day he got an idea. Why couldn’t all of his workers live under the same roof? It would be more efficient, and they could spend more time providing work and less time traveling to work.
He liked that idea, so he convinced people that it would be cheaper if they lived together, since it would save them living expenses. The idea seemed reasonable, so they sold their houses and started renting flats from the building owned by their boss. Since their salaries were now 400 apples and rent was only 40, they were happy.
In the mean time, the boss employed some very smart kids and paid them double than any other worker. Their only task was to invent the most amazing things they could in order to increase apple production.
One day, one of the smart kids came to the owner with a plan to build a machine that could replace workers for apple picking. The boss thought about it. He knew that apple picking was a tough job to do, and he approved it. The machine was built, and it turned out it was better than people. After the initial testing phase, the machine was approved, and almost all apple pickers were fired since they were not needed any more ... just a handful were left to take care of the machine.
For the discharged apple pickers everything that happened was too sudden. They wanted to work and do something else, but there weren't any other jobs. There was only one company in the village. After a few months, they were forced to live on the street as they no longer had any apples with which to pay the rent. Other workers, meeting former apple pickers on the street looking all tired and dirty, looked upon them with repulsion and disgust in their eyes, not willing to sympathize with their misfortune. They had little understanding that just in a few months, the same fate could strike them all.
Many of jobless, faced with starvation, turned to foraging, but food was quite scarce. Others turned to different means. Covered by the darkness of the night they started stealing from the orchard, and the most desperate turned to haphazard robberies, attacking those who still had their jobs.
After a while this became a serious problem, so the owner chose the strongest of his workers to protect his property and the workers. He gave them the power to use any means to stop those “evil beasts.”
In time, new machines were introduced. New jobs were created and some of them were destroyed. But slowly, one by one, all jobs were obsolete, and most people were left out of jobs. Apple orchards were richer and fuller than ever before, but there was almost no one to use their products, and after initial storage, production came almost completely to a halt.
The only workers left in the company were the smartest kids and guards. On one side, there was excessive wealth for a few, while on other side, there was poverty and suffering. Everyone believed that no one should get anything for free, and in order to live, one should work. The boss didn’t want to give them food without work and people didn't want his apples without working for him.
For few years, there was real struggle between guards and a huge mass of people who demanded that they had rights. Afraid of riots and angry masses, the smartest kids built machines to protect company from everyone not employed there. Unlike guards, machines haven’t had harts, and unlike guards they haven’t had sympathy or understanding for the suffering of the people. Above all, sentry machines were ruthless to perpetrators.
At this point, machines were taking care about everything, about orchard, about factory, even about themselves, they recorded everything and watched over everything. Small number of people left, after one unfortunate glitch in programming, made them obsolete — forcing them out on the street. Machines forcing their masters out, remained alone.
After a few months, those in need spent all they had. The only option they left was to scavenge garbage, but that was not enough for everyone. Many of them went to what was left of the surrounding forest, but that was not enough either, and when winter came, this story was brought to the end.
“Can be” village
On the other side of the world, across the sea, there is another village. About one hundred people live there. They are a somewhat lazy bunch of folks, but they are a smart kind of lazy — while they do not like to work, they know that some work has to be done. They know they are lazy and they believe that being lazy is good thing, and are quite proud of their laziness. They know there is no shame in being lazy, but they also know there is no shame in doing any work.
In the beginning they all owned apple trees, but one day, one lazy but very smart kid came up with idea to join forces and to combine resources into one collectively owned apple orchard. He calculated that in this way, they would save time they used working, which meant more free time to enjoy their laziness. He decided to share his idea with others.
The first time the kid revealed his idea at one of the village meetings, villagers were, to say the least, confused. Slowly, after many questions, they began getting it, understanding the idea and what it meant for the village's productivity. Unanimously, they decided to give it a go, agreeing that they should share everything. They succeeded in creating a set of rules good enough for everyone, to ensure they would not fight about who was working when and how much. Every member was valued for his or her own merits and rightfully rewarded.
Because everyone had more free time, they started inventing new creative things in order to make their life easier and more comfortable — apple pies, marmalades, house furniture, toys... With every new thing they invented, they needed to either create a new job or teach other people how to do or make those same things on their own. They shared their knowledge without any cost; however, those who had knowledge were a bit annoyed at the fact that they were giving up their own free lazy time teaching others.
They all knew that they needed to contribute, but would occasionally have an argument when some of their laziest members did not want to contribute, and instead only wanted to enjoy.
People were not arguing and fighting much, but their usual reason for a fight or an argument was a boring or labor-intensive task like apple picking. So, one day, another very smart kid, who liked to learn and play, was so fed up with all the fights that he decided to make a machine to pick apples. He just wanted to end all those annoying fights so that he could get on with reading his books.
This kid was determined to succeed. He studied hard and worked with gadgets he invented to perfect his skills. After many hours spent in his garage and countless failures, he’d done it. He built the machine, and his apple picking machine worked beautifully.
When people saw that the machine was working, they were over their heads. They were so excited that they threw a huge party to celebrate the kid and his marvelous apple picking machine. For years, the machine was working flawlessly. Now and then, it needed a few repairs, but that was very rare.
Sadly, the kid, who was not a kid anymore, got very sick, and he could not maintain his machine anymore. Eventually, the machine stopped working. On that day, something important happened. People understood that one day the apple-picker maker would be gone, in the same way that everyone in the village would one day be. They got really worried and wondered who was going to fix his machine then.
Someone got an idea: why not ask the inventor to teach them everything he knew? While the inventor was still in his bed, they visited him and asked him if he would be willing to teach them. He was thrilled. The interest and enthusiasm shown by his fellow townspeople actually helped him to overcome his illness faster. As soon as he was on his feet again, he created a school to teach whomever was interested in learning his craft.
In this way, a new generation of inventors was created. They invented many new machines, even machines to fix the other machines. They were enjoying building machines; in fact, they had so much fun with it, they called it play. They never even considered that what they were doing was work.
Villagers realized that knowledge is important. They also realized something far more important — deep down inside, it was not the laziness they wanted the most, as laziness can quickly lead to boredom. Instead, what they wanted was a fun and exciting life, and in order to have more fun, you have to learn new things and open your horizons and explore.
The more time they could free up, the more time there was for everyone to learn, play and explore.
Understanding the difference between lazy and fun made a huge difference. They learned that people who were very lazy, were really just lacking fun in their lives, which slowly drifted to boredom. Most of the time, afraid to do new things, troubled by their emotions, blamed their environment and gradually became bored-sick. Boredom in the village was treated as a mental condition, an illness that needed to be overcome so that that person could live their life to their full potential. However, the only caveat was that the person needed to ask for the help first. They believe that any sentient being must have the right to express its own free will, unless that “will” jeopardizes other sentient beings. So, if someone deliberately wants to suffer, they let him be.
This realization, and many others, strengthened the emotional bonds between all the people of village, and they began to think of each other as the cells of one big organism. Even the small, occasional amount of work they needed to do, as machines were doing almost all the work now, was not difficult anymore. From that time forth, they believe that they can have fun with anything they do. Every action can be a reason for challenge, play and having fun. In everything they did, they realized, they could enjoy.
To this day, if one of the villagers has to do something repetitive, hard or boring (or in other words, “not fun”), but something that still needs to be done, they will think about inventing a new machine to do that work for them.
Nowadays, machines in the village are doing nearly all of the work, and villagers have more time to enjoy life in a different way. They spend their lives learning, exploring, having fun, and deciding what they are going to do in the future.
The distinguished members of society have a few more benefits than others, but the difference is not huge. Education is a large part of what allowed them to become who they are. Most of the time people chose on their own what they want to learn, although from time to time they may have been advised to pursue complementary courses of study in order to expand their points of view. After higher education, only an hour a day is organized, and after, they are free to do whatever else they want — on their own. More or less the education process is largely gamified, where people are entirely immersed in a learning environment and exposed to experiences that are very hard to forget.
Recent advances in technology and science allowed them to achieve miraculous things. Even learning is not hard anymore, especially for those who had issues with learning before. Thanks to nanobiology memory enhancers, which sped up the learning process, now in a single hour they can learn more than they could in thousands of hours before.
While machines took over their jobs, the villagers largely used their free time to explore all corners of their world. During one of these explorations, they stumbled across a strange country, where everything was rich and full and handled by machines. It was very much like their own corner of the world, but no one was there — no one except machines. Chronicles were saying that the last person who died was the richest of them all. They left the place as it was, to be a testimony for future generations for how things can go the wrong way with just a few bad decisions and attitudes.
At this very moment, as they have largely extended their lives to thousands of years, just for fun they exploring the unlimited wonders of the universe, and in its vastness they never get bored.