Elon Musk is right

Man does not live by donuts alone

The billionaire of Tesla and SpaceX fame correctly identifies the core problem with artificial intelligence wiping out maybe half of all jobs in the (near) future:

“What to do about mass employment – this is going to be a big challenge. We will need to have some kind of universal basic income – I don’t think there will be a choice. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. […] The harder challenge is how do people then have meaning – because a lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. If you are not needed, if there is not a need for your labour. What’s the meaning? Do you have meaning, are you useless? That is a much harder problem to deal with.”

Exactly. A universal basic income may be necessary, but it obviously won’t be sufficient to stave off social unrest. Mass unemployment will require some deep thinking about how to restructure our culture and society to provide meaning and purpose to people’s lives.

In the meantime, you might want to start working on your emotional intelligence:

Those that want to stay relevant in their professions will need to focus on skills and capabilities that artificial intelligence has trouble replicating — understanding, motivating, and interacting with human beings. A smart machine might be able to diagnose an illness and even recommend treatment better than a doctor. It takes a person, however, to sit with a patient, understand their life situation (finances, family, quality of life, etc.), and help determine what treatment plan is optimal.

Similarly, a smart machine may be able to diagnose complex business problems and recommend actions to improve an organization. A human being, however, is still best suited to jobs like spurring the leadership team to action, avoiding political hot buttons, and identifying savvy individuals to lead change.

It’s these human capabilities that will become more and more prized over the next decade. Skills like persuasion, social understanding, and empathy are going to become differentiators as artificial intelligence and machine learning take over our other tasks. Unfortunately, these human-oriented skills have generally been viewed as second priority in terms of training and education. We’ve all experienced the doctor, financial planner, or consultant who is more focused on his or her reports and data than on our unique situations and desires.

Hmm… looks like Bertrand Russell’s prophetic essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” will need some slight updating:

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

The “first kind of work” is increasingly being done by machines, meaning, in Russell’s model, we will soon have an entire economy based on telling, advising and persuading other people what to do.

The whole essay is worth reading as it’s surprisingly applicable to today’s situation. Russell argues that modern technology has made it possible to cut the average workday to four hours, provided there is full employment. Note that he wrote that in 1932.

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