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How Will We Occupy Ourselves When Machines Do Everything for Us?

November 2017

I'm happy to tell you that I have everything figured out. What's the issue? That in the near future robots, computers, and artificial intelligence will pretty much take over everything that people are doing. When that happens, what will people do?

It's not far off. Already we've seen a huge loss of manufacturing jobs to robots. Recently, for example, Amazon has been replacing their "pickers" with robots. Pickers are the people who rush around Amazon's huge distribution centers grabbing items that people have ordered and putting them into plastic bins. Amazon is legendary for giving these pickers quotas that are impossible to fill. But it's less of a problem now, because increasingly robots are doing the picking.

How about checkout clerks? When I go to WalMart these days I do the self-service checkout – because, as you know, I like gadgets. It's fun to scan the items and press the buttons. But what happens when these self-service lines replace all the cashiers?

Amazon is intent in finding out. They've created a store, currently open only to their employees, in which every item has a sensor. As the person goes through the store and selects items, the person's smartphone tallies the items and prices. Then the customer passes through a "transition area," which adds up the total and automatically charges the person's Amazon card.

It's a great convenience for customers to not have to wait in line to check out, but it also means fewer jobs.

Also, consider the job losses associated with self-driving cars and trucks that are expected to be on the road soon. Also in development are self-driving tractors, which will be able to plant and harvest 24 hours a day. Consider, too, all the different ways artificial intelligence is being deployed. This technology is showing great promise, for example, in medical diagnosis, with implications for doctors.

Many experts are now quite worried, convinced that there will never be new types of jobs to replace those that are being lost. In anticipation of this, some cities and countries are experimenting with providing a universal basic income, such as Finland, Cyprus, the Dutch city of Utrecht, and the Canadian Province of Ontario. This idea also has strong support from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech billionaires.

Suppose, then, that in the future most people don't have to work. What will they do? That, too, is generating a lot of discussion among experts. In days past, people had to spend their time foraging and/or engaging in subsistence agriculture. Then with the industrial revolution, countries needed far fewer farmers, and nations began investing in the health and education of the populace so that they'd have a ready supply of factory workers and soldiers. But now, and increasingly in the future, technology grows food, makes stuff in factories, and engages the enemy (think drones).

Yuval Noah Harari, whose books I enjoy, suggests that jobless people will engage in virtual reality. In fact, surveys show that's already happening. A significant percentage of millennials, a generation that's finding it difficult to get a job, are living at home into their late 20s and spending their days playing online, multiplayer video games. These games provide a community, social status, recognition, and power.

But recent research suggests that such lives with limited opportunities are debilitating. A 2015 study made national news when it found that the mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education is significantly rising, due to an epidemic of suicide, alcoholic liver disease, and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. These are not people who are starving. These are people who are unhappy, who lack meaning. As we see in the news, there's a lot of anger, with people creating meaning in their lives by becoming extremists.

One of the 9/11 terrorists that I read about had a college degree, but couldn't find a job, which meant not being able to have a wife. In an earlier era he would have been working in the fields, but industrialization has forced huge numbers of rural young people into the cities, with limited opportunities for them. That's a situation ripe for unrest.

Here's my solution. First, understand the trends, accept that it would be very difficult to go back in time, and start thinking about what life could be like in a future in which machines do everything.

Second, grow food and learn to cook again. It would be healthier, it would give meaning, and it would decentralize food production. These are things that gave us meaning in the past, and now we'll have time for it. And you could even, like my friend Diane, buy a spinning wheel and loom and experience the intense enjoyment of making your own clothes. Seriously.

© 2017 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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