Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

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UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

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The End of Job Security

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If your job description isn’t already changing, it probably will in the near future. You can’t afford to stand still in your career. — Daniel Burrus

Today, a tap on your smartphone brings a clean, quiet, inexpensive taxi service to your door in less than five minutes. Another tap on your phone brings up a list of private rooms you can stay in while on a trip. Tap again and you get a roster of assistants who will bid to help you with nearly any type of project.

Meanwhile, workers grouse because they must labor at two part-time jobs instead of one full-time. They grouse because businesses are hiring help from overseas instead of locally. They grouse because corporations use robots instead of humans. They grouse because suddenly their work lives aren’t secure anymore.

What’s going on? Clearly employment is shifting and changing. Advances in technology bring conveniences to our lives while threatening our jobs.

Yet there’s more to it. The time of the corporate worker may be coming to an end, and we’re not ready for it. We are challenged, not merely to get a second job or write protest letters to our legislators, but to change our attitude.

Most of our great-great grandparents worked on farms. They had to bring in the crops, slop the pigs, milk Bossy, and batten down the barn against storms. If they got kicked by a horse, there was no emergency vehicle to rescue them. If the crops failed, they could starve.

The post-Civil War Industrial Revolution put huge factories in the cities, and people flocked there to find steady, if dull, work. Over the decades, factories and office buildings became the centers of our work lives. The entire culture shifted to adapt. It’s taken decades to get to this point, and it’s proven to be a tremendously prosperous way of life.

We’re raised to be workers in this corporate world. We start in families where Mom and Dad are the bosses who hand us chores and give us allowances. We grouse about them but depend on them. For school, we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our studies, and receive our grades. We grouse about the teachers but depend on them. When we graduate, we find jobs where we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our work and receive our pay. We grouse about the bosses but depend on them.

Today, most of us do as we’re told and receive our paychecks, all in a safe locale. We’re supported and protected by the institutions in which we toil. And now the rug’s being pulled out from under us.

High-speed advances in technology make for high-speed changes in the work world. Products and services get taken over by computerized processes. It’s no longer the age of “forty years and a gold watch” — it’s the age of the contractor and the entrepreneur. And most people aren’t ready for it at all.

In a corporate culture our work incentives are similar to what they were back at home and in school: do what you’re told, don’t make trouble, get your grades— er, pay. We’re rewarded for behaving like obedient children. It’s a tidal pull, and most of us succumb to it. We’re juvenilized by society. 

Just because we’re over 21 doesn’t mean we’ve grown up. We think, “Well, I finished school, got a job and a car and a place to live, and I’m dating a great person and we’re gonna get married and raise kids. I must be a grown-up.” But that’s a child’s idea of adulthood!

If you’re waiting in the placement office for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. — Seth Godin

There’s almost no conversation about what it means to be an adult. There’s no percentage in doing so for our elders, teachers, employers, and leaders. We’re easier to manage if we’re docile and well behaved. 

That we feel entitled — especially to various goodies from the government — explains why so many of us, in our work and civic lives, talk like we’re spoiled children. That we often spend our nights and weekends in front of TVs — or getting drunk — speaks to the paucity of our courage (and the drudgery of our safe jobs). Succumbing to childlike fears, we replace the great and ennobling quests of our dreams with mere recreation.

Most of us sleep-walk our way through our careers, and now many of those careers lie in tatters. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls us. It’s not safe anymore. And we can’t go back.  

Something fell by the wayside as the farming past morphed into the corporate present. Those farmers had an advantage we lack.

Back then, you had to be responsible for your outcomes in an often dangerous environment. In the corporate culture, you can stay a child forever, but on the farm you had to grow up or die. 

The good news is that we can reclaim what the farmers knew. And we can use that wisdom to help us deal with an uncertain future.

That wisdom is responsibility.

In today’s uncertain, unstable work environment, we need to find within ourselves the responsible and adaptive person our forbears could invoke in troubled times. We need, once again, to become adults.

Responsibility involves being able and willing to take care of oneself, to take charge of one’s life. If we accept the challenge and take responsibility for our work lives, we will find, not danger and insecurity, but challenge and opportunity.

We need, especially, to be able to adapt to changing conditions, to roll with the punches. We need to “surf the wave we’re on.” The technology that threatens our job security also offers ways to improve our situation.

What we’ve got, today, is tremendous opportunities disguised as troubling shifts in workplace stability.

The information revolution is reversing the industrial revolution. What the industrial age did was it allowed individuals to team up in mechanized hierarchical ways to create factories and production. . . . In the future it’s all headed towards individual brands. . . . We’re all founders. We are all meant to work for ourselves. — Naval Ravikant

Here, then, are some starter ideas for navigating the roiling seas of the changing work environment:

• The career middle path: Computers and robots tend to replace human workers in areas where the task can be calculated and calibrated mathematically. Oddly, the simplest jobs are often the hardest to automate. (It’s more difficult for a machine to lift a glass of water than to play a game of chess.) Meanwhile, some of the most challenging and prestigious jobs — data analysis, disease diagnosis, factory management — are straightforward tasks for computing. Recruiters no longer prize MBA grads as much as good salespeople and entrepreneurial self-starters. Some of the highest-skill careers are disappearing, while many of the low-paying, low-skill, high-touch jobs still thrive. Safest, for now, are those mid-level careers — craftspeople, tradespeople (plumbers, electricians), sales — that require several skill sets or advanced people skills. Plan accordingly.

The 10 most difficult roles to fill are: skilled trade workers (eg. electricians, chefs, butchers, mechanics), sales representatives, mechanical and civil engineers, technicians, drivers, management/executives, accounting or otherwise financial professionals, office support staff, IT staff, and production or machine operations workers. — Daniel Burrus

• Multiple career identities: We often define ourselves by our jobs: “I’m a doctor” … “I’m a salesperson” … “I’m an artist” … “I’m a scientist”. Today it may be better to regard ourselves as people who juggle several opportunities at once. At the very least, don’t let the work define you:

• “I’m a sales person” — Instead: “I do sales work, and I’m developing some new product ideas.”

• “I’m an office worker” — Instead: “I do work for the [so-and-so] company, and I’m taking night classes and developing a home-based project.”

• “I’m a doctor” – Instead: “I treat patients at the local hospital and teach a class at the university, and I’m writing a book about medicine.” 

Think for yourself as a free agent, responsible for your own security and always on the lookout for the next great job. — Stephen Pollan

• Two part-time jobs: Many companies have responded to government demands for more full-time benefits by hiring part-time workers. We can bitch and moan about this, but we’d be behaving like kids who grouse about their unfair parents. Instead, we can invoke our inner adult and grab the opportunities at hand: 

• Two part-time jobs can add up to more money than one full-time job in the same field. 

• A couple of part-time jobs often allow for flexible scheduling, so a worker can arrange for a free day to visit the doctor (or Disneyland). 

• Workers can receive ObamaCare, so this part of the benefits is covered. Meanwhile, other bennies are effectively paid for by lowering salaries. (There’s no free lunch, kiddies. Remember: we need to grow up.)

• If you lose one part-time job, you still have the other, which is better than losing all of it at once. 

• It’s easier to replace one of the part-time jobs (if, say, you hate it) than replace a full-time bad one.

• Multiple jobs reduce boredom, not to mention the all-too-common feeling of being trapped in a 40-hour quagmire. 

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. — Theodore Roosevelt

• Multiple streams of income: It’s been said that the wealthy tend to have several sources of money. And several is much more secure than only one. The list might include:

• A main job

• A side job (instructor, sales rep, consultant, craftsperson)

• Investments: 401Ks, IRAs, savings, inheritance, etc 

• A percentage of a business you helped start

• A unique product for sale online or at stores

• A “long tail” older product that still generates a trickle of sales

• A group project — perhaps with friends, family, or co-workers — that’s growing into a money-making enterprise

I’m always looking for people who have created successful side businesses that ultimately bloomed into multiple sources of income for themselves. You can do this whether or not you are an employee, an entrepreneur, or anywhere in between. — James Altucher

• Multiple online sources of work and pay: It’s those smartphones that started all this, so you might as well take full advantage of them:

jobs.monster.com and similar websites offer clearinghouses for your job search.

Kickstarter and others provide a chance — for those of us without venture capitalists on speed dial — to raise short-term funds for start-up businesses.

WordPress.com offers free and paid web services so you can create a site to sell your products or services. WordPress claims to have over twenty percent of all the web pages on the planet. With an audience that big, it’s worth looking into.

TaskRabbit: Here you can bid to do contract work in many fields. (The website accepts only ten percent of applicants, so fill out the form carefully.) Also look into Angie’s List and Thumbtack.

Fiverr: Kind of a “TaskRabbit Lite”, this site offers quick cash for short jobs.

Craigslist: Not only can you sell all sorts of items here — your obsolete cellphone, that old desk you don’t use anymore — but you can find and make job offers, too.

Flickr.com: Here you can vend your own photos to a gigantic audience. Look also at photo-and-art sale sites such as fineartamerica.com.

Amazon Flex is hiring Uber-type drivers to deliver packages.

Handmade at Amazon: This new entrant in the home-craft marketplace will bring its huge consumer base to compete with the current leader, Etsy.

Amazon bookstore: Here it’s easy to produce your own books in electronic and print formats (I’ve published two) and present them to the world’s largest audience of book lovers. Plus there’s an in-house printing company that can produce your paperback (or music CD). Amazon also owns Audible.com, where you can sell spoken versions of your written works (I’ve produced four). [Amazon keeps getting mentions because its customer base is huge, so any product or service you post there will be seen by a zillion eyeballs.]

I should be used as a mercenary, not a lifer. – Timothy Ferriss

• Reading list for early adopters:

The End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson — “Those that don’t adapt are becoming trapped in the downward spiral of a dying middle class – working harder and earning less. . . . a shift into the Fourth Economy has made entrepreneurship the highest-leveraged career path . . . ”

The Rich Employee by James Altucher: “Participating in the Idea Economy will allow you to succeed and become wealthy right there on the job instead of thrashing in the startup slaughterhouse.”

The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss — “Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan — there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times.”

Robots Will Steal Your Job but That’s OK by Federico Pistono — “ . . . the displacement of labour by machines and computer intelligence will increase dramatically over the next few decades . . . ”

The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The author made a killing in 2008 by anticipating the big downturn. “In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary . . . ”

Purple Cow by Seth Godin — How to “remarkabalize” your product so it stands out from the crowd and generates its own word of mouth.

The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg — “Most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school . . . how to find great mentors, build a world-class network, make your work meaningful (and your meaning work), build the brand of you, and more.” Read a summary here.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner — These engaging books on “the hidden side of everything” will help you look at economic and financial trends with fresh eyes.

“You want to be continuously learning new things and evolving what you do . . . ” — Pedro Domingos

…The disruptive business model symbolized by Uber is still in its infancy, but it can mature quickly into an adult-sized opportunity for you … if you take advantage of the changes. 

There are plenty of big problems out there that need solving, and people will pay you for results. Don’t wait for the boss to hand you an assignment; take the challenge and find some to solve. If you own the process, you’ll reap the rewards.

Our working society’s childhood is rapidly coming to an end. Most employees will resist this and try to remain in the comfortable corporate crib. You, on the other hand, can access your inner adult, zoom ahead of the competition, and move toward greater prosperity, freedom … and security.

Besides: it’ll be a grand adventure.

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UPDATE: Employment growth largest in careers that require strong social skills

UPDATE: The contingent economy rises from the ashes of unemployment

UPDATE: Corporations are still hiring

UPDATE: Where are all the young entrepreneurs?

UPDATE: Marc Andreesson on how to plan your career

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Watson computer replaces workers

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