Original article was published by Benjamin Rosman on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Why Working for a Living is Immoral
The inevitable rise of automation, the case against “jobs”, and what to do about it
The Work Crisis
The alarm bell rings. You open your eyes, come to your senses, and slide from dream state to consciousness. You hit the snooze button, and eventually crawl out of bed to the start of yet another working day.
This daily narrative is experienced by billions of people all around the developed world. We work, we eat, we sleep and we repeat. As our lives pass day by day, the beating drums of the weekly routine takes over and years pass until we reach our goal of retirement.
We repeat it so that we can pay our bills, so that we can set up our kids for success, and so that we can provide for our families. And after a while, we start to forget what we would do with our lives if we didn’t have to go back to work — whether we’re working for a living or living to work.
In the end, we look back at our careers and reflect on what we’ve achieved. It may have been the hundreds of human interactions we’ve had; the thousands of emails read and replied; the millions of minutes of physical labor — all to keep the global economy ticking along. This is how most people experience their work in the developed world — just another cog in the global wheel of perpetual growth.
According to Gallup’s World Poll, many people in the developed world actually hate their jobs. In fact, only 15% of people are actually engaged with their jobs worldwide. Stress and clinical burnout and subsequent suicide in Japan have caused the government to intervene — 94% of Japanese workers are not engaged at work.
The current state of “work” is not working for most people. In addition, many jobs are unnecessary from a practical point of view, such as “box tickers” (creating work to show everyone that something is being done) and “taskmasters” (creating work for others to do — but if they suddenly disappeared the work would still be done).
In fact, the reality is even worse than this for millions of people worldwide. Every day, you hear about the loss of lives in dangerous working conditions — whether it’s a landslide in a jade mine in Myanmar, or the e-waste recycling workshops in India, or the deaths of cobalt miners in Congo. The International Labor Organisation (ILO) estimates that some 2.3 million people around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year. This corresponds to over 6,000 deaths every single day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.
In the developed world, you may be lucky enough to choose not to go back to the work you dread and seek social security or welfare. Those economies are able to provide some semblance of a safety net for the people who experience disruption to their working lives, such as during a pandemic, to help them transition and seek another job. But in many developing nations, these socio-economic structures are simply not in place.
In either case, almost every person globally is trapped working in some way or another, doing something that is likely to cause them psychological, emotional, or physical harm. There are very few options available to anyone, of any class or country, to escape sitting on the spectrum of corporate slavery. That is, if they want to be able to feed and shelter themselves, their family, and experience “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, they must continue this cycle. Falling off this spectrum is actually considered one of the worst things that can happen to a person, as can be seen by the millions globally in unemployment, which often translates to poverty.
On top of all this, modern slavery itself is a tragedy. The ILO estimates that, by their definition, over 40 million people are in some form of slavery today. 24.9 million people are in forced labor, of whom 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as in domestic work, construction or agriculture. 4.8 million people are in situations of forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million people are in forced labor imposed by state authorities.
When all of this is considered together, it is abundantly clear that we as a species are trapped by a global Work Crisis, which condemns humans to cast away their time just to get by in their day-to-day lives.
The Spectre of Automation
Against this backdrop, many are involved in efforts to automate different aspects of work. This has been ongoing since the Industrial Revolution, which largely took the form of steam engines and other machines working their way into factories. In recent decades this has taken on a more elegant guise, with first physical robots in production plants, and most recently, with software automation entering most offices.
The driving goal behind much of this automation work has always been productivity and hence, profits: any piece of technology that can act as a multiplier on what a single human can achieve in a day is of huge value to any company. Powered by this strong financial incentive, this quest for automation is growing ever more pervasive.
The most recent form of automation is driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and is being embraced by global corporate giants and tech startups alike. Where previous generations of technology were physical in nature and required large teams to be developed, software automation leverages exponential advances in machine learning, software frameworks, and distributed computing, meaning that the barrier to entry to apply this technology is considerably lower. Buzzwords such as “robotic process automation” are now a staple across many industries, as more office work starts to fall under the shadow of automation.
This affects the future prospects of all employees. A growing number of workers in every sector are worried about this, and they are right to be. Many in the technology sector dismiss these fears, with the claim that workers can simply be upskilled, and that even more jobs will be created in their place. This argument is short-term and naive at best.
Three factors are worth considering here when thinking about the future of the workplace:
- It is unclear whether there is anything that, in principle, cannot be automated in the long run. We are seeing unprecedented advances in multiple areas of AI, including understanding images, text, speech, human behaviour and even in long-term planning and decision-making. In addition, machines are far more capable at running simulations of future events, or weighing the pros and cons of decisions than humans can.
- There seems to be no technical barrier stopping the ultimate automation of any role of work. Even if some jobs were to be spared from automation (perhaps due to regulation), there is no fundamental law of the universe that necessitates that there will always be enough jobs for every human. As both our technology advances, and the global population grows, it seems apparent that the number of available jobs would decrease.
- Finally, it is unclear whether anyone suddenly put out of work by technology can be reasonably upskilled in their lifetimes. This is particularly apparent with the high unemployment many countries are already facing.
Taken together, this picture suggests that many, if not most, jobs are scheduled to be lost. Already in the US, a significant number of people are regularly declared redundant because of technological advances, which have accelerated due to the pandemic along with a new wave of automation. In fact, COVID-19 has spurred China’s great robotic leap forward, and this aligns with their government’s 2030 AI strategy: to be the dominant global player in AI.
To further complicate matters, we have no idea of when these massive job losses are coming. This will transpire slowly in some lines of work such as upper management, but it could happen very quickly for jobs involving repetitive physical or cognitive tasks (using technologies available today), as well as those involving driving in the coming years. To date, billions of dollars have been invested into the autonomous vehicle industry.
The exponential growth in automation technologies and adoption is clearly not sustainable for societies, and a crisis here is looming. If we do not anticipate and address this accelerating trend, it has the potential to destabilise the entire human project. As a diminishing number of people find themselves employed, we can expect a host of negative effects, including more concentrated wealth among a shrinking elite, more strain on government social support, and an increase in depression and drug-dependence. Worst of all, skyrocketing unemployment tends to lead to growing, and in many cases, violent social unrest.
The argument that we will adapt as humans to augment ourselves with technology has been made by the transhumanism movement. Just like we use our smartphones to extend our connectivity, memory and intelligence based on the collective knowledge accessible on the internet, transhumanists believe that one day we will be able to merge with AI to transcend all limitations of our human biology. The risk, however, is that not everyone will have access to these technologies, similar to how not everyone has access to a smartphone today. In fact, only 59% of the world population have access to the internet in 2020, let alone the many who are in poverty and still need access to basic needs like food, water, shelter, healthcare, education, and energy. With growing unemployment, coupled with existing socioeconomic divisions and challenges with interoperability in software, hardware as well as political platforms, equal distribution of the fruits of automation will only become harder to come by over time.
It seems as though we are rushing headlong into a major crisis, driven by the engine of accelerating automation. But what if instead of automation challenging our fragile status quo, we view it as the solution that can free us from the shackles of the Work Crisis?
The Way Out
Automation is certainly going to change the role of work in society, and this coming change is not only inevitable, but accelerating. Indeed, researchers have argued that countries should capture new opportunities through aggressive investment such as South Korea and Germany’s Industry 4.0 technology initiatives, but this only incentivises market forces to accelerate the automation availability and adoption.
As such, it seems we have three choices:
- We can ignore the impending changes as being “too far away” or something not worthy of concern,
- We can try and slow this technological progress and force things to stay the way they are, or
- We could embrace this change, and wield it to our advantage.
Ignoring progress: Ignoring the current technological progress, and the resulting effects on our delicate socio-economic balance may be tempting. Concerns around AI are often dismissed as being a problem for the future. However, this is naive largely because of the uncertainty involved. We do not know when the advances will be made that will put large swaths of the population out of work, and indeed this could happen overnight. At the same time, we do not know what destabilising effects this would have on society. As a result, it seems prudent to anticipate these problems before it is too late.
Slowing progress: A seemingly trivial solution would be to slow or regulate technological progress. While this would directly tackle the threat of the impending social upheaval, it is in fact an untenable approach. Although regulation may help to address unfair trading practices of monopolies and oligopolies in the short term, software solutions lower the barriers to entry for digital automation, which means that it can be pursued by anyone with a technical (and even not so technical) background. This makes progress in automation very difficult to control. Unlike threats posed by, say, nuclear weapons where research is in the hands of a few state actors, there are many thousands of entities working on AI research, and orders of magnitude more that have access to deploying these technologies. The tremendous financial incentives associated with automation further complicates any hope of bringing all such development under centralised control.
Embracing progress: Instead, we could take a step back and evaluate the implications of automation in a more positive light. We have two crises here that could actually counteract each other. Instead of viewing the Work Crisis as something which we should desperately cling to while being assaulted by radical, societal change brought on by automation, perhaps automation could actually be our salvation from the Work Crisis.
In order to undertake this paradigm shift, we need to consider what society could potentially look like, as well as the problems associated with making this change. In the context of these crises, our primary aim should be for a system where people are not obligated to work to generate the means to survive. This removal of work should not threaten access to food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, energy, or human value. In our current system, work is the gatekeeper to these essentials: one can only access these (and even then often in a limited form), if one has a “job” that affords them.
Changing this system is thus a monumental task. This comes with two primary challenges: how to provide a person without a job access to financial security, and how they can maintain a sense of their human value and worth. There are several core areas of concern, each with important steps for society to consider:
Universal basic income (UBI): One major concern with moving away from work centres on its financial role to workers, and this source of income would need to be replaced. One suggestion that is rapidly gaining traction is the widespread implementation of UBI for all people in society, regardless of their situation, and for them to thus become shareholders in the fruits of automation, which would then be distributed more broadly.
UBI proposals can be traced back as far as the 16th century, but have been floated throughout American history by a wide range of leaders including Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King, Jr. A minor form of UBI arguably has already existed since 1982 in the US state of Alaska in the form of a 25% royalty from oil revenue in that state which goes out to every resident of Alaska as the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) of around USD 2,000 per year. The one-time $US1,200 stimulus checks Americans received earlier this year as a part of the CARES Act are also arguably an interim universal basic income. However, programs around the world such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the US and Australia’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker still tie these stimulus measures to work or the act of seeking work, and will end after a period of time. As such, they are not truly “universal” and lack permanence, which is what would be required to lead the economy away from work-based human value.
UBI trials have been conducted all around the world including Finland, Kenya, and Spain. The findings have generally been positive on the health and well-being of the participants, improved education and showed no evidence that it disincentivizes work, a common concern among critics of UBI. The most recent popular voice for UBI has been the former Presidential Candidate in the US, Andrew Yang, who now runs a non-profit organisation called Humanity Forward.
UBI could also remove wasteful bureaucracy in administering welfare payments (since everyone receives the same amount of UBI, there’s no need to prevent rorting), and promote the pursuit of projects aligned with the individual’s skill sets and passions, as well as quantifying the value for those who perform tasks that are currently not recognised by economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This includes looking after children and the elderly at home. There is a growing trend to recognise measures such as the Gross Happiness Index in Bhutan, and the focus on wellbeing promoted by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern in her government’s 2019 Budget.
How a UBI can be initiated with political will, society backing and paid for by governments around the world has been hotly debated by economists and UBI enthusiasts around the world. Arguments from how much the UBI payments should be set to, whether to implement taxes such as Yang’s proposed valued added tax (VAT), whether to replace existing welfare payments, whether to take into account economic multipliers from the stimulus from spending, socio-economic benefits such as health, wellbeing, education and creativity, impact on inflation, and the impact on “jobs” from people who would otherwise look for work in light of a UBI require additional discussion. However, some have predicted the inevitability of UBI as a result of the ubiquity of automation.
Universal healthcare: Another major component of any society is the healthcare of its citizens. A move away from work would further require the implementation of a universal healthcare system to decouple healthcare with jobs. Currently in the US, and indeed many other economies, healthcare is tied to employment. This originated during World War II when service to the military created a labor shortage. The employers and unions offered various benefits, including health plans to incentivise more workers. After the war, and through the economic boom of the 1940s and 1950s, this became the predominant form of health insurance, and any companies trying to compete for workers would be expected to provide it. Medicare and Medicaid were subsequently set up to provide health insurance for the poor and the elderly, two groups not generally receiving employer benefits.
Universal healthcare such as Medicare in Australia is evidence for the adage “prevention is better than cure”, when comparing the cost of healthcare in the US with Australia on a per capita basis. This has already presented itself as an advancement in the way healthcare is considered.
There are further benefits of a healthier population, including less time and money spent on “sick-care”. This leads directly to flourishing and achieving more of human value potential.
Apart from being an essential component that must be established for a work-free society, growing universal healthcare may work as an intermediate step to support the current gig economy to ease the transition from traditional employment, thereby enabling more flexibility for people to pursue activities they prefer over full time jobs.
Reshape the economy away from work-based value: Healthcare is not the only way in which the well-being of people should be prioritised in society. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in a departure from work is for people to find value elsewhere in life. Indeed, many people view their own identities as being inextricably tied to their jobs, and life without a job is therefore a threat to one’s sense of existence. This, then, presents a shift that must be made at both a societal and personal level.
A person can only seek alternate value in life when afforded the time to do so. To this end, we need to start reducing “work-for-a-living” hours towards zero, which is a trend we are already seeing in Europe, led by organisations and suggested by Finland’s Prime Minister. This should not come at the cost of reducing wages pro rata, but rather could be complemented by UBI or additional schemes where people receive dividends for work done by automation. This transition makes even more sense when coupled with the idea of deviating from using GDP as a measure of societal growth, and instead adopting a well-being index based on what society actually values.
The crux of this issue is in transitioning from the view that work gives meaning and so life is about using this to survive, towards a view of living a life that itself is good, fulfilling and meaningful. This talks directly to notions from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where work currently largely addresses psychological and safety needs, such as shelter, food, and financial well-being. People should instead grow beyond this current struggle, to engage in the levels of self-actualisation and transcendence.
The question is largely around what could provide one with the desired sense of value. The answer would differ as much as people do, from self-mastery, to building relationships and contributing to community growth, fostering creativity, and even engaging in the enjoyable aspects of existing jobs, for their own sake.
Universal education: With a move towards a society which promotes the values of living a good life, the education system would have to evolve as well. Researchers have long argued for a more nimble education system, but universities and even most online courses currently exist for the dominant purpose of helping people find a job, and ensuring they are adequately skilled to contribute to the economy. These “job factories” only exacerbate the Work Crisis. In fact, the response that is often given by educational institutions to the challenge posed by the automation of jobs, is to find new ways of upskilling students, such as ensuring they are all able to code. As discussed earlier, this is a limited and unimaginative solution to the problem we are facing.
Instead, education should be centered on helping people acknowledge the current crisis of work and automation, teach them how to derive value that is decoupled from work, and enable people to embrace progress as we transition to the new economy. The fact that many people find it so difficult to imagine a life having its own intrinsic value is evidence that our education system is failing at providing us with the tools we need to thrive.
While we seldom stop to think about it, much of the suffering faced by humanity is brought about by the systemic foe that is the Work Crisis. The way we think about work has brought society far, and enabled tremendous developments, but at the same time has failed billions of people. Now, the current status quo is threatened by those very developments, as we progress to an era where machines are destined to put every human out of work.
This impending paradigm shift is a gargantuan threat to the stability of our fragile system, but only if it is not fully anticipated. If we prepare for it appropriately, it could instead be the key to not just our survival, but also open the door to a better future for all.