Pessimists are wrong: technology can help everyone get better jobs.

In the not-so-distant future, artificial intelligence and robots will take care of routine tasks. Factories will be full of robots, cars will drive autonomously and software will take care of many office tasks. Most observers expect humans to be replaced by robots and imagine a future with billions of unemployed people. These pessimists even propose new welfare systems to take care of these unfortunate humans.

In reality, there is absolutely no proof with regard to the negative impact of technology on human employment. On the contrary, human history is full of examples of technology creating new job opportunities. Looking back, we see how people working in agriculture moved to industry and later to service jobs. Today in developed countries more than 70% of employment is in services. In the same fashion when routine jobs are taken over by robots, we will move on to more complex and creative jobs. Liberated from tedious tasks we will have time to take care of each other.

This article aims to highlight the potential positive impact of technology on employment and makes the case for embracing change.

What kind of jobs will be left for humans?

Pessimists implicitly assume that we will continue to need the same kind of jobs as we have today. However, humanity’s needs evolve with new possibilities. Employment in current jobs might decrease, but there will be many more job types. 40 years ago we hardly had any computer programmers, now we have over 20 million worldwide. Who would have imagined a job category called “search engine advertising specialists”? New jobs do not even need to be high-tech; think about all those yoga teachers, personal trainers, or dog walkers.

We can already identify the first new fields that will shape our future. One of them is “personalized medicine”. Our understanding of the human body is improving dramatically. We already have cancer therapies customized according to the patient’s DNA. On the other hand, sophisticated robots make it possible to move from mass production into personal production. This will enable us to mass-customize medicine and food supplements. The combination of these two trends will transform the whole health industry. Think about pills or food created for you, based on your own DNA and current health.

A second field is “health enhancement”. In the future, we will move on from “curing” diseases to “preventing” them and “enhancing” people’s health. Keeping our body and mind fit will not be left to sports centers and healthy diets. We will constantly monitor our health and make adjustments. There will be alerts prompting us to take certain nutrition or to exercise. Mental health will not be allowed to deteriorate, and we will make proactive use of coaching services. A whole new industry will make sure that we do not get sick and remain fit. There may be monthly subscriptions for proactive health enhancement services. What about an “executive performance package” that combines mind enhancers, physical boosters with guided relaxation?

The space industry is another completely new area. Private rocket companies have already started flying to space. A space travel industry is emerging. There are plans for colonizing Mars and more destinations will follow. Once commercial applications increase, the space industry could become a significant employment creator.

Last but not least, the natural evolution of the internet into virtual reality will create tremendous opportunities. Already today the internet sector employs a significant number of programmers, designers, and marketing people. As we move from one-dimensional internet into more dimensional virtual reality employment will increase dramatically. The possibilities and complexity will require much more manpower. Graphic designers will evolve into experience creators and virtual architects. Art will become digital and appeal to more senses. Your dream house will not be built, it will be programmed. You will be able to select the smell of the forest in your backyard or add a touch of gentle ocean breeze to your balcony.

Will only the elite have jobs?

Pessimists argue that only a highly educated elite will have a future in tomorrow’s job market. The first implicit assumption behind this thought is that while our technology creates sophisticated machines and software, our education system will not make use of these new opportunities. The second one is that machines will be better than humans in almost all tasks and therefore will take over all jobs.

These assumptions make little sense. Education policymakers will most certainly make use of new technology. This is not only because it is superior, but because it will also be cheaper. Teaching over individual interfaces (screens etc.) and using flexible software needs less physical infrastructure. The incremental cost of software is close to zero. Even poor people in remote valleys can log in to their education account and have access to the world’s best lecturers. All content will be precisely tailored to student’s knowledge and skill level. Artificial intelligence will predict questions and propose new lessons. Thanks to technology such high-quality education will become a commodity that everyone can afford. This in return guarantees that we will not be left with millions of unskilled workers.

Even if we can train humans better, will it ever be enough? In the end, robots will always be faster and more reliable. They do not get bored and will not make irrational choices. They will stay within the limits of their code and stick to the rules. However, this strength is also a serious limitation. Their predictability makes them great for production but much less suitable for creation. For instance, an AI could potentially write an agent thriller by analyzing past bestsellers and combining them but will have a hard time writing anything that does not follow a tried and tested formula. That leaves humanity plenty of creative jobs to concentrate on. Humans will be engaged in trying new things, creating new realities. Once the new creation establishes itself, machines can take over and operate it more efficiently.

Another point in favour of human employment is that not all jobs require efficiency and speed. On the contrary, sometimes we want to slow down. Millions of people pay for yoga and meditation courses. The wellness industry has been expanding for years and is expected to continue doing so. It seems as if we are trying to balance the increasing speed in our lives with “guided slowness”. This is certainly an area that will continue to create “human” jobs.

Can some jobs be more “human” than others? Currently, we work as production units, just like machines. A company can decide to use more workers or employ more machines. This is the main reason why we are afraid of being replaced. However, letting machines take overproduction and other routine tasks would free up time which we could use to do other things. How many times have you complained about not having enough time? Not enough time for employees, colleagues, or your own family? When machines take over those repetitive tasks we will finally have enough time to take care of each other. Thanks to advancements in education software teachers will have time to individually coach each student. Once machines do all the housework parents can spend more time with their children. When old people’s basic needs are taken care of by robots, human caregivers can focus on their emotional needs. Paradoxically, robots can help us become more “human” by giving us enough time to focus on the really important things in life.

Is worldwide full-employment possible?

One of the main reasons for unemployment is the mismatch between people’s skills and the needs of the job market. The world does not actually lack jobs, it lacks people with the right training. Most countries have too many architects or sociologists but not enough programmers or nurses. There are three main reasons for this mismatch. First, in most countries, the needs of industry is not matched with the curriculum. The system creates graduates with knowledge and skills that no one needs. Second, we stop educating people as soon as they reach adulthood. The world changes at an incredible speed but we fail to adapt. Third, people cannot or do not move to places where jobs are waiting for them. Strict immigration rules and social connections make it difficult to change domicile.

Technology is helping us overcome all these limitations. The Internet created a worldwide market for freelancers that can work from anywhere. Thanks to virtual reality many more jobs will go online, and people will not need to physically move to another location. Ongoing online training will ensure that our skills match the demands of the market. For instance, if we need more programmers, our education account will just recommend more programming courses. These courses will be extremely efficient as they will adjust to each student’s individual needs by using artificial intelligence. With this technology, we will be able to train millions of people in record time. The result will be a much more efficient global job market that has the potential to eliminate worldwide unemployment.

Do we really need to work?

In less-developed countries people continue to work for food and shelter. On the other hand, most citizens of richer countries do not worry about satisfying basic needs. Instead, they mainly work for comfort and prestige. No one really needs fancy homes, exotic holidays or the latest electronics to survive. The richer we become, the more needs we create. This is because we always compare ourselves with our peer group and adjust our needs accordingly. So whatever technological state we are in, we will always try to set ourselves apart from other people. This also means that we will continue to need a performance measurement, some sort of money. This money will need to be earned by doing something that other humans value.

In summary, humanity will continue to work for money. There will be many new jobs in areas that we cannot even imagine. Humans will take better care of themselves and of each other. Education will improve dramatically and continue throughout the entire human lifespan.  We might continue to work long hours, but mostly as a matter of choice – just as today’s rich and well-educated work longer than past generations.

Unfortunately, we will not end up happier than today, as happiness will remain a moving target that no technological advancement can bring closer.

Could we still end up destroying human job prospects?

Yes, we can do it if we block educational progress and turn back the time on globalisation. Under such a scenario we could end up with a small elite managing the world with robots and AI. The rest of humanity would live idle in some ghettos, probably sedated with a combination of drugs and games.

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