Yuval Noah Harari on the Driverless Future

We have to reject the wishful thinking that the driverless future is a generation away for our industry, our jobs, us.

I stumbled upon something from Yuval Noah Harari, The rise of the useless class at the TED site. Harari is making what is now an uncontroversial claim:

The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?

His working is amazingly similar to what I contributed to the Pew Research Center’s report on AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs in 2014:

The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?

Harari doesn’t reference that report, which is a landmark in the discourse on the topic. (In passing, I’m happy to announce I am now serving as a member of the Pew Research Center’s advisory board on Robotics and AI.)

Harari points out the rate of change in AI today is so fast that what was imagined as a distant, next-generation goal only a decade ago is coming to market this year:

In 2004, professor Frank Levy from MIT and professor Richard Murnane from Harvard published research on the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation. Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. A mere 10 years later, Google and Tesla can not only imagine this, but are actually making it happen.

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Harari riffles through the recent discourse about the driverless future, touching on familiar questions:

  1. Our capabilities are reducible to ‘algorithms’ that have evolved over time, and there is no reason AI can’t copy — or better — how we do things.
  2. Will people find refuge in artistic creativity? Not likely.
  3. Is this analogous to the creation of the industrial urban proletariat, forced off the land and into the factories and mines, and exploited like machinery? Well, kind of, but instead of being exploited,

In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

4. Harari cites Osborne and Frey’s 2013 The Future of Employment, which is now a touchstone in the discourse about the driverless future of work. He reinforces their argument — a large proportion of today’s occupations are liable to be ephemeralized by AI and robots — and stands up and knocks down the techno-utopian trope that technological change has always eliminated jobs, but created new ones. His counter is swift and to the jugular:

Of course, by 2033 many new professions are likely to appear — for example, virtual-world designers. But such professions will probably require much more creativity and flexibility than current run-of-the-mill jobs, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if they do so, the pace of progress is such that within another decade they might have to reinvent themselves yet again. After all, algorithms might well outperform humans in designing virtual worlds, too. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

That paragraph is a perfect and concise riposte to the starry-eyed optimists who don’t accept the possibility of a dark end to the rise of driverless.

He ends with the requisite Skynet/Terminator notions: that AI will become sentient, and smarter than all of us, and simply terminate us as a petty annoyance.

However, he doesn’t have an answer to the question he asks, and offers no glue to hold the house of cards together. He doesn’t mention universal basic income, or the likelihood of a political movement countering the driverless future. He does touch on a key corollary of his opening question, wondering who should ‘own’ the productivity and profits from a driverless economy:

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.

The driverless future looks increasingly to be a time of increased inequality, where ever greater numbers of professions are ephemeralized, vaporized, driverlessized, and people find themselves unable to compete even as a broom pusher, burger flipper, or vegetable picker. The time is coming when it won’t be just the dispossessed coal miners and factory workers of the Rust Belt voting against a future in which they have no place. It will be the unemployed programmers and PR staffers whose once-upon-a-time middle-class lifestyles will be hitting the wall, along with the financial planners and options traders, the paralegals and researchers, the doctors and nurses, the IT staff and the news reporters. Every job is at risk.

We have to reject the wishful thinking that the driverless future is a generation away for our industry, our jobs, us. This is happening now, one occupation, one job, one person at a time.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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