Employment in age of data

My objection to universal basic income (UBI) is that it misunderstands the nature of the problem of employment in the age of automation and data.   I agree that there is reason to be alarmed that we may face a future when there are no jobs for people who want jobs and historically were able to find jobs.   My with the UBI solution is that the real problem is the lack of jobs instead of the lack of income.   Income without a job does not address the fundamental problem of loss of work.   The primary benefit of work is the fulfillment of a function in society.  While income is a reward for that function, there are abundant cases of people volunteering for uncompensated work.   The primary need is to provide opportunities for contributing function to society.

Clearly, the rapid growth in computing has led to increasing automation of many jobs.  Earlier, robotics and mechanization automated many manufacturing, mining, and agricultural jobs.   Now, the advances in data analytics and machine intelligence is increasingly automating formally office jobs.   Even for volunteer jobs, automation can be more efficient and cost-effective.  Automation’s threat to office jobs creates a crisis that I think will be much more disruptive than automation in other jobs because it undermines the purpose of cities and the entire infrastructure that support cities.

Once we automate what occurs in cities, the cities themselves will become obsolete.  Giving everyone a basic income doesn’t solve the problem that there is no reason to be in the city and there is really no place for most people to go outside of the city.

I wonder what kind of lifestyle people think will be supported by a universal basic income.   A frequently expressed expectation is that people will be free to devote all their time in leisure.   For older people, this vision is that they will basically remain where they are currently but with leisure activities replacing work activities.   My observation is that it will be impractical or even undesirable to stay in a comparable setting because what makes that setting desirable now is the fact that people have a purposeful job.   Once peoples priorities change to full time leisure, many will abandon their present locations in pursuit of other locations.

The problem is that leisure-oriented locations do not have the capacity to accommodate everyone.   Market forces may meet the demand by developing high-capacity leisure communities, but the available consumers in this market are constrained by a relatively meager universal basic income.   I would expect that the result would be accommodations that will be very disappointing, especially to older people who remember what they once had when their income came with the burden of a job.

The most efficient way to develop communities of leisure is to redesign cities for leisure instead of work.   At a minimum, this will require converting office buildings to residences or some type of leisure attraction.   I don’t see how such a redesigned city can have the density of modern cities.   In particular the function of high-rise residences is not conducive to leisure, and certainly areas of closely placed residences.

For those who enjoy a city life, the benefits of that life will quickly disappear with the disappearance of office jobs.   The lack of office jobs will starve the economy of daytime work populations with ample spending capabilities.   Much of the value of city life is highly financed by the day workers paying premiums that keep entertainment or service industries in business to provide excess capacity to those who have less money.   Once the big money disappears, the services will disappear, and what remains will not be as appealing.

This is compounded by the need to reduce the density of residential areas as a result of the reduced appeal of living near certain locations.  The value of the city comes from the density.   UBI will lead to a decrease in density and certainly will reduce the appeal of high density.

Appealing leisure-only communities will inevitably be less dense than cities.   This is a result of two factors.  One is that there is space needed for many leisurely pursuits.   The other is that the communities will tend to specialize to certain types of leisure thus limiting the population interested in living there.   Such leisure-only communities will also be less diverse than modern cities.  People will congregate according to their interests.

There is currently a very small stock of leisure-only communities.  There are not enough of them currently to accommodate all who would want to join them.   Without income-growth jobs, there is little profit potential to build new ones.   Certainly some will enjoy the benefit of being in the right leisure-city for their tastes, but I suspect that the vast majority would be frustrated by being left out and without any chance of getting in.

Automation is more efficient in the denser cities.   As a result, it will be most affordable to live in denser cities.   However, these cities will likely be very boring with little to offer in the form of leisure.   The primary form of leisure for most people will be idle loitering in private or public spaces, with the sole entertainment from virtual social networks, computer games, and video sharing,   Even the social media sharing will devolve to people talking into cameras day after day while sitting on the same bed in the same bedroom.

I can imagine people resigning to being satisfied with this existence, but it is not appealing from this distance.   Besides, I doubt if this will be stable.  There will be trouble-makers, and with the resulting density there will be no shortage of them.   Public spaces will be taken over by territory lords and people will increasingly be driven to private spaces, getting out as little as possible, perhaps relying entirely on home delivery of services.

With high density cities of UBI recipients, there will be automation of security services.  However those services will gradually adapt to conditions on the ground, accommodating the worsening conditions in a way that secures the peace at the cost of loss of enjoyable leisure.    This is a pessimistic view, but one based on my supposition that the life of a city comes from its providing gainful employment to its inhabitants: gainful both in purpose and in income.

Perhaps we will be clever in designing high-density cities of universal basic income.  However, if that were to come to pass, we will need to be adapting these cities now so that they are present when we will need them.   I don’t see that happening before UBI will become a necessity.   As it is now, city planners face their existing cities becoming flooded with UBI recipients who will have to occupy existing residential stocks that offer very little leisure inherent in themselves once the surrounding neighborhoods lose the employers and the leisure services that primarily cater to the employed.

I don’t find UBI to be very appealing, even if I manage to avoid needing it personally.   This makes me think it will never be happen.  There may be some form of welfare for the unemployable, but it will not be universal to a population and for all time.   There will be employment to replace the automated office work and there will be a decline in population in cities and consequently overall.

The optimistic side of me supposes there will be new forms of employment to replace those lost to automation.

I see many jobs that I doubt can ever be automated.  Recently in my neighborhood there have been multiple separate jobs trimming or removing large trees near structures.  These involve individuals climbing to the top the tree with a chainsaw and a team on the ground to maneuver the ropes to direct the falling branches safely to the ground.  I don’t see how this will ever be automated.

Similarly, there are the routine maintenance jobs of existing structures that present too diverse problems for machines to accomplish.   Even futuristic humanoid robots would present challenges of powering it and of dealing with the inevitable conditions of the robot becoming disabled.   These jobs are often dangerous but even injured humans are more readily rescued and replaced than any robot I can imagine.   Robotic replacements for these jobs will probably end up with a landscape littered with abandoned broken-down robots that are too difficult to remove.

A counter argument is that new cities may be built with standardized structures with built-in accommodation for automated repairs.   That will solve the above problem after we remove all of the existing structures.   Again, with just UBI, I don’t see the cost benefit for doing so.   It is more cost effective to use humans for what they are especially good at doing: manual dexterous labor in potentially dangerous conditions.   These are dangerous low paying jobs, but there will be abundant pool of labor to perform such jobs and it would not take much monetary benefits to attract workers especially given the opportunity to be functionally useful.

Many infrastructure maintenance and repair jobs in a wide range of scenarios will always be best filled by human labor.   The automation can do most of the routine work, but maintaining and repairing the automation will likely require humans.   Perhaps these jobs will increasingly become part time jobs, but they will not disappear.   Most of these jobs do require skills so that the off-time will require some form of training, or physical exercise and healthy diets to be eligible for the jobs when they occur.   The leisure time for these workers will largely be consumed with training and exercise.

Another example occurred recently as a result of the historic flooding in Houston in early September 2017.    It is difficult to imagine automation or data-analytics being any value for the emergency preparation of a short-term forecast, the emergency rescue of large populations, the management of evacuees, and the eventual clean up and recovery.   While the situation is difficult, there is progress due to the availability of capable and well equipped labor.   Among the people available to help out, there was a large population with useful skills, strength, and equipment to help out.   We can expect many more similar disasters in the future ranging from winds, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, avalanches, volcanoes, tsunamis, explosions, etc.

Continued civil peace will depend on competent response to these disasters, but that response will rely mostly on humans, not machines.   A sustainable future UBI society with a lack of routine work will need a ready pool of able and well-equipped human population who are in the right place to be valuable.   One of the stories from the Houston flood was the response of what was called the cajun navy: a fleet of trucks towing motorboats each had for typically recreational purposes.   A UBI would never equip a similar navy.

As mentioned above, I doubt there will ever be a permanent universal basic income.  We will adapt in new ways that will still result in jobs for humans.  Many of these jobs will be dangerous and dirty jobs, but there will be workers who will fill the openings.

More importantly, I think UBI misrepresents human labor market.   I see how it fits with economic thought going back several centuries that describe work as services offered in exchange for some type of wealth transfer that eventually mostly involved some form of income.   The model suggests that income is the goal and work is a means to attain that goal.   The economic model of humans is as a rational being that generally optimizes wealth-return for investment in labor or for bodily risk.   I think this is backwards.

I question the origin of economy in the first place.   I am ambivalent about evolutionary theories, but for sake of argument I’ll grant there was a prehistoric time proto-humans existed without any semblance of economy, especially outside a very small tribe or subsistence hunter-gatherers.    While I imagine that such a tribe will include individuals who desired status or wealth advantages of others, that desire alone would not create an economy.   Instead, the innovation came from those who sought a way to provide functional value to the community.   There would be innovations that may be very minor at first such as improved hunting techniques, learning new ways to use materials or to find new food stuffs.  The community would show their appreciation for these benefactors with some form of reward as status or privilege.   My point is that economy involving wealth was a consequence of a more basic human need of being useful to the community.   Assuming the power of evolved behaviors and the slowness in evolving new behaviors, people continue to have this drive to be useful the community in order for the community to respond in kind with recognition of the function provided.

If UBI becomes practical and necessary as a result of extreme automation of most jobs, there will be some in the community who will still seek out ways to be useful despite an adequate UBI.   Perhaps many will be satisfied with passive lives of leisure.   Perhaps culture will change so that within a couple generations, the vast majority of people will be satisfied with robots doing all the useful tasks.   This is not a world that I find attractive, but that may be a consequence of my culture.

I go back to the idea of how economy got started in the first place.  There is something innate in humanity that desires to be useful and compensation for that usefulness comes as a pleasant side-effect instead of a driving motivation.   I realize someone can describe the same conditions as being primarily motivated by compensation in the first place, but I am more convinced that the primary driver is the need to provide function to a group.

If the vast majority of jobs available to most people are automated, and if the more dangerous labor jobs best suited for people are too rare or oversupplied with labor, then how will will innovate with new jobs that will resist automation?

As an aside, we may increase the demand for the manual labor through human-caused disasters such as war or sabotage.   Maybe we will become more motivated to go into outer space with vastly large scale migrations to space stations or colonies on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere.   Given the lack of similar opportunities of an automated Earth, we may increase our tolerance for risk of occasional disasters in space and even seek out the colony construction opportunities due to the need for human labor that is impractical to replicate by machines, at least in the early building phases.

Instead, I’m considering what new types of work we will create in an automated planet.

In an earlier blog post, I described the growing demand for data to drive analytics.  Within increasing capacity to store and retrieve data, there is more opportunity to collect data.   At lot of this data may come from machines and their sensors, however, there remains value in data from humans.   There is a need for collecting data about human behaviors, opinions, attitudes, and interactions.   This is an old market previously filled by journalists, investigators, or social scientists.    With the increased data capacity, these legacy careers are insufficient to satisfy the demands for more data from humans.

I propose that a big market of new jobs will involve data.   We will soon automate most modern data science jobs that emphasize computing, algorithms, statistics, machine-learning and systems administration.   However, there will be an increasing demand for human review of data for quality and relevance.   We will need humans to validate what algorithms and what data to use for key decision making tasks.   We will also need humans to collect information about what humans are thinking.

I can imagine a future that has universal data employment.   This may effectively be the same as universal basic income, but there would be an accompanying opportunity to provide function to the automation by collecting data, cleaning the data, validating algorithms for fitness to new questions, and of creating new data or types of data.

I also suggested in earlier posts that modern democratic governments may be replaced by governments by data and urgency, a form of government I called dedomenocracy.  While historic jobs are automated, there will remain ample work to provide the necessary human inputs into this otherwise automated government.   The purpose of government is to govern people and we need people to inform how such a government should answer current needs.   The pure dedomenocracy involved purely automated decision making, but those decisions are likely to change quickly over time and apply to limited areas.   I proposed that dedomenocracy would result in a government that addresses only the immediate priorities and leave everything else alone.  Such a government would be a libertarian government punctuated by limited tyranny of automated rule-making.    For such a government to work, we will need a broad human participation in the gathering and verifying of data and of selecting and validating algorithms in order to select the right priorities to maintain super-majority consent to be so governed.

The UBI future may be universal government employment but that government will be a data-driven government that replaces modern bureaucratic governments.   Alternatively, the bureaucracies will be opened up to employ most of the population in the task of managing the data-driven government.   Everyone will have an income because everyone will be employed as data workers in a dedomenocracy.


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