Technological Funemployment

Photo by Tony Webster on Unsplash

For years, the spectre of technological unemployment has been exploited as the sociological apocalypse that will require all kinds of new economic interventions like a universal basic income and universal healthcare. (More on those proposed solutions in the future.) This spectre, however, is harmless. It’s a tiny kernel of truth wrapped in a triple-ply fib of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

The kernel of truth is this: Automation DOES put people out of dangerous and boring work. There are centuries of hard evidence for this. Agriculture jobs? Gone. Manufacturing jobs? Done. Transportation jobs? Endangered. Technology, be it a hammer, or a thresher, or a robot, or an AI, allows people to make repetitive or strenuous tasks a breeze, so one person can do the job of many, pushing people out of that line of work. Seemingly, this is a tragedy.

The lie is the notion that people don’t find or create other jobs. It promotes a fear that many are doomed. Thankfully, it’s easy to find examples that disprove this notion. If technology eliminated agriculture and manufacturing jobs, why are 90% of Americans not unemployed? The answer is that they found safer, more interesting work, and often in new industries that were only made possible by technology. Really, people just moved further down the pipeline, or steps were added in between where new technology created a demand for people to distribute and use it. The products of farms and lumber and quarries and mines were made into complex machines, and these new complex machines required lots of humans to sell them, operate them, repair them, insure them, etc. At the end of the day, every advancement in technology that has saved human labor in one area has created just as much or more human labor in other new areas.

A fast example in the video game industry shows how automation technology in even the most high tech jobs is preserving and expanding the job market. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers created an AI that can recreate a game’s mechanics simply by watching gameplay. An intelligent machine like this can essentially provide a framework for a new game by looking at an old game without having to know the source code. It can just make new source code that developers can use to make new projects:

"Instead of putting people out of work, this will make it possible for people to create games that were otherwise unable to do so," Riedl said. "That makes it possible for more people to create – increasing the size of the pie instead of supplanting individuals. Second, professionals may be able to build games faster by having the system make an initial guess about the mechanics. Working more efficiently doesn’t necessarily put people out of work, but does allow them to make bigger and better games in the time available."

Robots in the workplace simply means that more work gets done, even with the same amount of people. Usually this just means that more satisfying work gets done. All the doom and gloom about recent technological unemployment is slowly being cleared away by the realization that if the rate of job destruction is increasing, the rate of job creation is also increasing, giving people more choices and opportunities than ever as old, stale ones fall away. As these technological processes continue to disintegrate old industries and form new ones from those ashes, we’re not seeing technological unemployment as a pervasive phenomena, but rather as a temporary restocking before employing those souls with new, more fun employments.

At the end of the day, what this means is that we are slowly unlocking the most fun and challenging problems for humanity to conquer, and there’s no sign that we are finding any limits to humanity’s potential. Human ingenuity is boundless. We’ll always be standing on the shoulders of giants, venturing out into new frontiers. We’ll keep extending, not until we reach the limit of our mental and physical capacities, but until there are no frontiers left. Where are we at that point? What are we if not marching towards godliness, with ever-improving mastery over the universe, delving constantly into the depths of the yet-unknown pockets of knowledge that our universe is hiding?

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.”

Understood in the lens of history, what I think what Clarke really means is that we are taking people away from being paid for drudgery, and towards being paid to play. The rosy future exists where robots and AI provide us all our food, health, transportation, shelter, and entertainment for free, and we simply enjoy unbridled leisure. But even if all the amenities of life are enjoyed freely, we probably won’t be slobs. Instead, we’ll be free to pursue the passions that we all have in our hearts. We’ll be “fun”-employed, due to the technological fruits of the labor of the other fun-employed people that came before us. The goal of the future, then, is full funemployment, and it’s the future we’re already marching towards. We know this because it’s the same path we’ve always been on since humanity began: the hard path, which is also the fun path.