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The future of jobs - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The future of jobs [Apr. 16th, 2009|04:52 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I think it is fair to say, to a first approximation, that rewarding professions are those that involve some amount of creativity. Of course, you could be unhappy in any job, say because your boss is a jerk, but under the right circumstances you should be able to find job satisfaction in a creative field. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine this being the case with thoroughly repetitive, monotonous tasks.

Mike Rowe would appear to take a contrarian stance in his TED talk celebrating dirty jobs, but I think a distinction must be made between taking up a job in order to pay the bills (and still finding a way to be happy with it), versus actually choosing something as a rewarding career. There is empirical evidence for the legitimacy of this distinction: there are people who assemble computers, cars or motorcycles as a hobby, even though these tasks have been completely automated, whereas you'd be hard pressed to find someone who spends time separating toxic sludge into its constituent components just for fun. I think Paul Graham makes the same point when he makes fun of a job posting calling for applicants with a "passion for service."

Given this (admittedly crude) dichotomy, it becomes important to ask if there will be a day when everyone has a rewarding job. I think this would be a great thing to look forward to, and entirely within the realm of possibility, since technology has been making relentless progress in automating anything that is repetitive. In the rest of this essay I will analyze the unrewarding jobs that have not yet been automated, and discuss what is holding back automation and what it would take to get there.

A couple of quick points of clarification: first, I'm looking a few decades into the future; the current recession has no bearing on the analysis here. Second, even though the average person has an emotional (and adverse) reaction to the loss of jobs to automatons, I will assume I am writing to a more mature audience, and won't waste time arguing that automation is almost always a net benefit to humanity.

The first category consists of tasks that we can already automate, but for some reason continue to be performed by humans, like taking orders at a restaurant. The main reason that these jobs still exist, in my opinion, is inertia: people react with surprise or revulsion at seeing a machine in a role formerly filled by humans, and are confused by the user interface. But they will eventually get used to it, just as they have with ATMs and voice menus. Technologies such as Microsoft Surface, which make it possible to market automated restaurant service as a positive experience, will speed the process along. It is likely that a small percentage of people will still pay for the privelege of human interaction, but that doesn't affect my overall argument.

Incidentally, businesses that involve fully or partially automating tasks previously performed by humans have always been excellent avenues for entrepreneurship. The early history of fast food is a great example.

The second category consists of jobs that we can't yet automate, but are easily with reach, such as fast-food preparation. Human labor is still available too cheaply, preventing the investment needed to build, perfect and deploy the technology to fully automate these jobs. Increasing automation and increasing labor costs form a virtuous cycle, so in a sense it is just a matter of time. But can the cycle be sped up? I can think of three factors that might help:
  1. A slightly over-educated workforce. This puts pressure on workers to try to migrate up the chain toward more creative jobs.[1]
  2. Less government interference in business. I think this is somewhat nuanced: labor unions have a negative effect on automation, whereas a high minimum wage probably encourages it.
  3. Stimulating developing economies. This will result in their labor prices rising, thus diminishing cheap pools of immigrant laborers and cheap offshore outsourcing.
Finally, it is important to note that there will be "collateral damage," if you will, in terms of jobs or skills that are rewarding to various degress but that we will nevertheless learn to automate. This is not a huge issue today, but this happy state won't last long. Already it has raised some very interesting questions: do singers need to work on their pitch at all, given that software can correct for human imperfection? Technology that falls into this category will be met with much resistance. Some will embrace it, but others will decry the downfall of civilization and probably try to get it banned. Eventually, however, I think we will have to learn to treat jobs that have been automated as hobbies rather than professions, and continue to strive to find even more challenging avenues for human creativity.

[1] Although it is hard to envision and the process is slow, society can indefinitenly accomodate migration toward jobs at the creative end of the spectrum. Jobs such as entrepreneurship or documentary film-making have elastic demand, unlike say sanitary work. If entrepreneurship becomes highly feasible and attractive for whatever reason, the economy will gradually adjust so that there are more, smaller companies.

From: fixious
2009-04-17 02:41 am (UTC)
As far as collateral damage, I think some people enjoy even their seemingly monotonous jobs -- it's steady, there are fixed hours, and you're free to pursue your hobbies once the workday is done. Hobbies which you may not want to make a career of, even if you could, because you're afraid of failure or having to compromise.

I don't automation will ever undermine art -- original or performance. People who are serious singers will slave over their pitch anyway (and the pop music artists who don't bother wouldn't have bothered 20 years ago either... they just get away with now). It is like saying that digital cameras and Photoshop have caused the automation of photography -- sure, they have replaced some obsolete technologies, but they have also leveled the playing field, and opened up the art form, almost overnight, to thousands of creative people for whom the time commitment and expense of darkroom photography was unaffordable. (But there will be those who do things the old way for their own reasons, and no one's stopping them.)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-04-18 05:27 am (UTC)
i didn't mean to claim that automation could undermine art. sorry if i gave that impression. i was using pitch perfection merely as an example of a skill that is both rewarding to achieve and possible to automate.
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From: fixious
2009-04-18 06:27 am (UTC)
Yeah, I know. But my contention is also that I don't foresee much collateral damage due to automation. It's not just the singers who will work on their pitch, it's also the audience who will patronize such singers for their talent (automatable or not). Let's face it, most truly gifted and hard-working musicians have a small following even now... it's not going to down by much.

I also think your footnote is a bit naive. Entrepreneurship potentially does have elastic demand, because you are producing according to society's needs/desires (by definition). But documentary film? People on an average actually have a lot of free time -- even with their time-sucking and routine jobs -- but only a fraction of a fraction of them spend that time watching documentaries or reading poetry or going to dance performances. I have to say, however, that the market for sitcom reruns and bizarro reality shows is highly elastic. :P
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[User Picture]From: medryn
2009-04-17 05:01 pm (UTC)
We have similar visions of the future, except that you think that the vast majority of people will find "creative" work that they are compensated for, and I think that the vast majority of people will live a modest and dignified lifestyle supported by the state. (Where they will be free to pursue whatever creative acts they want, without having to worry about whether or not they are lucrative.)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-04-17 09:59 pm (UTC)
that sounds pretty much like dystopia to me :-)

by the time anything like that happens though, peter thiel's seasteading plans will probably have come into frution, and i'm getting outta here, leaving you to live your socialist dream :-)


Edited at 2009-04-17 09:59 pm (UTC)
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From: ext_192532
2009-06-07 04:41 pm (UTC)


Sorry but the example about singers is pretty bad.
Auto-Tune is fine for « pop music », i.e. for people with no taste in music, but not much more, and it will probably stay that way.

One thing you missed is that if we can automate a lot of tasks, it would be so cheap to live that having a full-time job won't be a necessity.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-06-07 05:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Auto-Tune

re. auto-tune: thanks for the condescension. all i will say is that time will tell.

re. jobs: i didn't "miss" it. i'm acutely aware that we're already *way* past that point in first-world countries; no one except those performing manual labor for minimum wage "needs" to work full-time. we earn money to maintain (and improve) our social status, and that need will never go away because it is relative to other people.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-11-23 11:36 pm (UTC)
Do you folks live somewhere with national health insurance? In the US, people work nonrewarding jobs and full-time rather than part-time largely because healthcare costs are a potential bottomless pit. So are children, I'm told.
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