The Human Brain: The Unsaleable Commodity

Oct 14, 2015

Technology has always replaced humans 

“If, then, man’s principal asset and value is his brain and his ability to calculate, he will become an unsaleable commodity in an era when the mechanical operation of reasoning can be done more effectively by machines.”

The philosopher, Alan Watts, wrote the above in 1951. The idea that machines will replace humans is not new. The job of sowing seed has become easier and more productive over time with the hoe, the plough and the tractor. The textile industry has seen the same productivity improvements. The spindle,  the flying shuttle, the spinning mule and the spinning jenny. Machines continue to replace human manual labour. But technology and innovation has not led to sustained mass unemployment. More productive sectors of the economy create jobs as less productive areas lose jobs. The loss of human jobs to technology has been a feature of human progress since stone tools.

This time it is different 

AI tools are arriving at a time of instant global communication and digital distribution. Facebook can make a breakthrough in New York and on the same day Shanghai and Santiago researchers can test the approach. Knowledge can be shared and reviewed with experts on Twitter. Amazon Web Services allows developers to build products faster than ever. Developers can add AI capabilities from IBM Watson with a simple piece of code. The iOS app store and Google Play Store allow apps to reach over 2.6 billion people today, growing to 6.1 billion people in 2020. The Industrial Revolution took around 100 years to transform the global economy. The artificial intelligence revolution will touch almost every person on earth in less than a few decades.

What happens when the jobs run out?

As machines replace the last humans on farms and in factories, the real revolution is coming to offices. The service sector provides jobs in which humans have maintained their competitive advantage: the brain. Digital Genius provides a human-like customer service tool that can replace customer service reps. Ellipse by Thoughtly is a research tool that analyses websites, journals and articles to discover insight. One single research manager with Ellipse can do the job of a team of ten researchers. Products like Guesswork can use AI to qualify, prioritise and route leads reducing the size of the sales team. A machine can complete most data analysis tasks better than a human. Millions of jobs are at threat in every part of the organisation. Data analysis is central to many jobs in marketing, sales, HR & recruitment, customer service, and finance. 

What would you do if money were no object?

Over the next 20 years, there will be millions of people around the world that can no longer trade their labour for capital. Retraining programmes may work in some cases and more flexible labour laws may boost employment for a limited time. New technologies like drones, virtual reality and autonomous cars will generate new jobs. But these jobs will be highly-skilled and will need engineering ability. This will leave millions of under-skilled, un-skilled and wrongly skilled workers. Economic growth will no longer create jobs for humans. This is a fundamental break in the engine of capitalism. 

A world of worklessness will force society to adapt. One transformative theory that has dismissed before is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The UB, first proposed by Thomas Paine in 1795, is not means tested and every citizen is eligible. High costs and the disincentives to work resulted in the idea being dismissed. The age of worklessness will demand a review. AI applied across the economy will raise productivity levels to unprecedented levels. Healthcare, public transport, and energy will cost less and generate more. The challenge for governments is to ensure AI gains do not amass to a few trillion dollar companies, as millions of citizens cannot earn money. This is already becoming a concern for many governments. UBI will be affordable for most governments if redistribution becomes a policy goal.

If all humans have enough money to meet the majority of their needs, what will people do with their time? Scientists, artists, and designers will be free to pursue their passions without the need for money. Even Thomas Hobbes who described the world as “short, nasty and brutish”, believed leisure to be the mother of Philosophy. Oscar Wilde as always said it best; “cultivated leisure is the aim of man.” All humans may finally be free to pursue leisure and happiness. What would you do if money were no object? 

Lawrence Lundy


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