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The robots are taking our jobs

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-08-2017 Rahul Matthan

Ned Ludham was a short-tempered, young apprentice employed to work the stocking frame by a mill owner in England in the late 1700s. Rumour has it that when his supervisor ordered him to “square his needles” because he was knitting too loosely, young Ludham, instead of meekly complying, grabbed a hammer and smashed the offending apparatus. Two decades later, the particular brand of industrial insubordination that came to bear his name grew into a widespread labour movement defined by its approach of collective bargaining through riot.

Contrary to popular belief—and the meaning that the term has come to assume in modern parlance —Luddites were not ideologically opposed to all technologies. Instead their ire was focussed on machines that churned out sub-standard products and were operated by poorly trained, unskilled workmen. They did not demand that mill owners abandon all technology, but instead that they should only hire workers through an apprenticeship and with the assurance of decent wages. However, since these protests took place at the dawn of the machine age, and visited violence towards the very machines that made skilled craftsmen obsolete, the term Luddite has come to symbolize an opposition to technology for technology’s sake.

Much blood was spilled to quell the Luddite revolution. When the dust finally settled, craftsmen who’d been replaced by machines had to learn to operate the very machines that displaced them. Society at large came to accept that while new technology brings about disruption in the workforce, it does not so much eliminate jobs as replace one type of job with another. This is the very nature of technology, each new innovation disrupting the existing labour force until workmen learn to adapt themselves to their new technological reality. In that sense, Luddites are just people who have not yet adapted to the changes around them.

We are currently in the midst of yet another tectonic technological shift that is causing significant disruption in the workforce. Industries across the board are replacing humans with software and machine intelligence, leaving in their wake a jobless workforce bereft of opportunities to re-skill themselves. It may not be immediately apparent but just about 5% of all jobs today have been newly generated by modern “high tech” sectors and even in these highly labour-efficient industries, everyone operates under the risk of imminent obsolescence. Imagine how much worse it is for the rest—most of whom who are still performing jobs that have existed for the past 100 years.

Given the exponential growth of computing power and the far from exponential rise in job complexity, it seems inevitable that we will, at this rate, sooner than later, run out of jobs. So long as the economy continues to grow despite the lack of jobs, we could, for the first time in human history, be looking at a post-work future where all our needs are provided for without us actually having to work.

If that is true, we are on the threshold of a fundamental shift in social structure. Work is not just the process by which the economy produces goods—it is the means by which people earn income and, more often than not, the one activity that gives purpose to our existence. A society that no longer needs to work will have to fundamentally change the way it’s wired to adjust to this new reality.

In a world where machines are responsible for production, governments will be greatly enriched by the wealth generated by the more efficient automation processes. This should allow them to implement systems such as Universal Basic Income, for their citizens, removing the urgent imperative of working for the sole purpose of earning a living.

But while it might be possible to find financial solutions to the post-work future, the real challenge that governments will face is finding a way to give our lives a continued sense of meaning once technology has eliminated the need for human capital. We are wired to work because we feel that by doing so we are contributing to society. This is why, even though humanity, at this point in time, is more prosperous than it has ever been, we are probably more obsessively devoted to overwork today than we have ever been.

Governments in a post-work world will struggle hard to find a solution to this problem. Some say the answer may lie in re-energizing the very handicraft skills that we destroyed during the Industrial Revolution—in finding ways to bring back that special satisfaction that comes from working with our hands. Others believe that we will, free of the distraction of work, be able to concentrate much better on improving ourselves, our knowledge and our intellect.

Whatever path we go down, the post-work world will be radically different in almost every way from the world we live in today.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.

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