First Question

Posted by bob on February 6, 2017

When we meet a person we have not met before, one of the first questions we often ask is some form of “What do you do?”

By this we usually mean, “What do you do to earn a living?” or “How are you employed?”

It is very central to the Western (American or European) culture to ask this question and to even conduct extensive conversations around this topic.  We often define ourselves in terms of what we do—meaning what we do to earn enough money to live.

Yet many times we might encounter people doing a job with little passion or enthusiasm, because their real identity is connected to a less profitable aspect of their life.  There is an old joke about the greeter in a New York restaurant saying, “Your actor will be here in a minute.”

I have always felt extremely fortunate that some businesses valued engineers enough to pay them reasonably well.  I guess I have sometimes been a little surprised to find that a company will let me play with such cool tools (toys) AND pay me to do it.

But I think we need to be very careful when we wrap our identity so closely to our employment.

Kurt Vonnegut explored this concept in his novel Player Piano.  He speculated on a future where machines could endlessly mimic the actions of the most skilled tradesman, such as a machinist. 

Vonnegut explores some intertwined concepts, where if the way we value each other is based solely on what we do, and if we don’t need each other to do those things, doesn’t that mean we have no value?  Extending a bit, if having value is equated to being loved, then what happens if none (few) of us have any value?  Who will love the unlovable?

Ironically, he did not anticipate that a computer-controlled device could exceed the precision of humans, creating shapes to mathematical curves beyond any human hand skills.

Further, Vonnegut did not anticipate the rise of thinking machines, Artificial Intelligence, that could beat humans at Chess, Go, or Jeopardy games.

I was surprised to rediscover an old episode of The Twilight Zone which also covered this ground.  Look for the 1964 episode titled, “The Brain Center at Whipple’s.”

The blunt truth is that we are rapidly approaching a day where machines can do the tasks that any human does, but faster, more accurately, and with less day-to-day cost.  The initial investment might be high, but the operating cost is trivial.  Yes, machines can fail, but they won’t need billions or millions of us to maintain and repair those machines.

So what do we do with all of these excess people?  And who is defining which among us is unnecessary and who is essential?  If all of us are unemployed or underemployed, how will we buy the output of these automatic factories?  I suspect that entirely new rules of economics will need to be created to fit this frightening new world into which we are falling.

Yes, I have written and believe that we all are in the business of solving problems, and that we will never run out of problems to solve.  Machines will not truly be able to initiate problem solving until they become sentient (self-aware) like us, but that does not mean that machines cannot be employed against the better interest of most human beings.

This is one of those ideas that keeps me up at night.  It is why I want to encourage smarter people like you to become better problem solvers. 

Maybe you will be the person that thinks through how we solve this situation.  I hope so, because I’m getting a little nervous these days.


*** After posting this essay, I ran into several concurrent media references to robots and automation displacing humans, and the problems related.  I post these with no additional analysis, but suggest that you keep your mind open for similar discussion in the future.  It is important.

In the USA, 55% of workers get their sense of identity from their job:

An article on LinkedIn regarding automation, job-loss, and minimum basic income.

Goldman Sachs replaced 600 equity traders with 2 traders and 200 software engineers:

Bill Gates thinks we should tax robot workers to help pay for the workers taxes that are being lost.  Interesting idea, but tremendously difficult to implement.  Machines have been displacing workers for hundreds of years.  The difference here is that some machines are doing what we previously would have called "thinking."

With thanks to Jason, here are some additional links on this topic: