Billionaire technorats can't just tweetstorm the impending techno-utopia and expect the plebes to like it. Radical innovation—like, say, driverless cars or computerized faces—takes some getting used to. In order to sell human obsolescence, Google CEO Larry Page opts for a Mary Poppins approach.
During a recent fireside chat at the KV CEO Summit, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla asked Page about the imminent "machine-learning revolution" that might render, oh, about 50 percent of existing jobs obsolete:
VK In this group, there are a bunch of people who are addressing the beginnings of the machine-learning revolution. There are people replacing farm workers, so you can weed plants and provide plant-by-plant care. People who are doing machines to make hamburgers automatically, all the way up the chain to people who are replacing law clerks or even doctors, psychiatrists, ENT specialists, you name it. So the whole span, from very simple work to very large work, is being replaced in a way that is a little bit scary. I want to come back before we finish to the social aspects of some of the technology changes. But I do wonder if the vast majority of jobs that we know today, more than 50-percent might be replaced by machines that can do that human judgment piece better.
Page insists this is no big deal, brosef, reminding Khosla that the same transition occurred after technological advances in agriculture, where previously "90 percent of people used to be farmers."
LP I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance, like Peter Diamandis' book. If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy - housing, security, opportunities for your kids - anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1-percent at the moment. So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true.
But how do those resources get distributed to the rest of the 99 percent? If labor from both manual and knowledge workers alike is useless and we can no longer exchange labor for wages and wages for resources, who will make sure everyone's needs are met? To use Page's agriculture example, just because food is easier to produce doesn't mean its easier for the aforementioned "everyone" to access. Should we expect the same widening gap between abundance and scarcity for "housing, security, opportunity for your kids"?
Page is less focused on those logistical details than he is with feelings. To him, employment is not a means to survival, but a means to happiness. Ergo, just have benevolent employers divvy up non-essential jobs between a couple of useless workers and then the partially employed masses will be content! You get a (part-time) job, you get a (part-time) job, etc. Emphasis mine:
LP I think there's also a social problem that a lot of people aren't happy if they don't have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. We need to feel like you're needed, wanted and have something productive to do. But I think the mix with that and the industries we actually need and so on are— there's not a good correspondence. That's why we're busy destroying the environment and other things, maybe we don't need to be doing. So I'm pretty worried. Until we figure that out, we're not going to have a good outcome. One thing, I was talking to Richard Branson about this. They don't have enough jobs in the UK. He's been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time. So at least, the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job. And it's a slightly greater cost for employers. I was thinking, the extension of that is you have global unemployment or widespread unemployment. You just reduce work time.
Asking employers to shoulder a slightly greater cost so that more workers can have (not enough) money sounds as logical as Marc Andreessen's trickle down technomics. But the people Page surrounds himself with think it sounds swell:
Everyone I've asked— I've asked a lot of people about this. Maybe not you guys. But most people, if I ask them, 'Would you like an extra week of vacation?' They raise their hands, 100-percent of the people. 'Two weeks vacation, or a four-day work week?' Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they'd also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.
Let them eat Soylent?
[Image via KhoslaVentures.com]