The end of labor

Zbigniew Gajewski, Director of EFNI

WBJ Observer talked with the director of the European Forum for New Ideas Zbigniew Gajewski about this year’s edition of EFNI, which will be held under the title “The future of work. Realities, dreams and delusions.”

by Jacek Ciesnowski

WBJ Observer: This year’s EFNI will focus on the future of the labor market. Why did you choose such a topic, when Europe is facing more pressing challenges such as Brexit, immigration and terrorism?

Zbigniew Gajewski: All of the problems that Europe is currently faced with have already been discussed in previous editions. Maybe the scale of those problems is bigger than before, but we’ve analyzed them in depth. Europe is lagging behind other continents, and the EU is in crisis and needs fixing. There is a huge discord between EU citizens and EU bureaucracy and I think even EU officials don’t realize how big the gap is. This is why the topic of labor is so important, as it is one of the foundations of the EU and if we don’t start doing something about it, Europe’s problems will intensify. We won’t be just talking about the labor market, but about the essence of labor as well. I think it is a problem that will reshape the whole world, not only Europe.

Why is it so important?

Work, in a traditional sense, will cease to exist in the future. This will be the first moment in the history of humankind that we won’t have anything to do. Even if we wanted to do something, machines will do our jobs more cheaply and more efficiently. Right now that process has only just begun. It’s not so visible, so we’re not even discussing it. Yet, its effects will have a revolutionary effect on humankind. Work has been a crucial part of our lives, we did it to make our and other’s lives better, it connects us and creates communities, not to mention it provides us with funds to fulfill our needs and dreams. And one day it will be gone.

What kind of timeframe are we talking about here? Years, decades, centuries?

There are different estimates; some studies estimate that in the next ten years, in highly developed countries, half of all jobs will be outsourced to machines. No one will be safe. A US company, Momentum Machines, has developed a fast food bar, fully operated by robots (humans, at least for now, will handle some administrative duties and take out the trash). Customers will order food using terminals, they can even choose if they want their meat rare or medium, robots will prepare it and a different machine will deliver it to your table. The initial investment in opening such a place is paid off in less than a year. McDonald’s, the current leader in the market, employs 1.8 million people in its restaurants all over the world. Will they have so many people on the payroll ten years from now, knowing that they can run the same operations at a fraction of the cost?

You think customers won’t need human interaction in restaurants and other places?

That’s an interesting aspect. Some people definitely need to talk to a waiter or a clerk. But technology can also replace that. What if we develop avatars that act like humans, or probably behave even better than some of us. Watson, a question answering computer system built by IBM, was used by Georgia Tech as a teaching assistant. For a year it communicated with students and they were all unaware that they’d been communicating with a piece of software.

It wouldn’t be the first such revolution in labor. There have been many inventions, including the internet, that have killed some jobs, but in return created many others.

The current situation is different. In 2014, Google had over $16 billion in profit while employing 61,000 people, General Motors in 2015, earned $9.7 billion, with 215,000 people on its payroll. This stat says everything. Apple has built a new server farm worth $1 billion and only 50 people work there. Maybe new kinds of jobs and positions will be created in the future, but so far it’s not looking good.

You’re painting a rather gloomy picture.

These changes won’t affect only us, but they will deepen the problems the EU currently has. In the past, the European bloc encountered numerous problems, but when the crunch time came close, somehow all sides managed to overcome them. But none of the previous problems can compare to the philosophical crisis about what we’ll do with ourselves once we’re stripped of such a significant part of our life as labor.

Is there any way to avoid it? It’s progress, and after all, you can’t stop progress.

That’s true. I think it is not reversible. We’re near the point where the technology we have created, AI, is capable of managing itself. It doesn’t need humans anymore. The question now is what it will do. Some, more pessimistic, theories suggest that it might even destroy us ultimately. It’s hard to imagine that we can manage this process. Can you envisage a G7, or even UN General Assembly, meeting and saying that they demand an end to the robotization process because people are losing their jobs? The interesting question, which will be discussed at EFNI and I intend to ask Martin Ford about, is what we will do after we no longer have work. I’m sure that such a moment will occur in the future, as not only simple, repetitive jobs will be handed over to machines. More complicated ones will go the way of the Dodo as well. Even today, we have software that replaces journalists – Quill. Ford claims that we can already read articles written by software in major news publications, but the people running them don’t want to admit it.

Why be so gloomy? The theory that robots will do our work of us and we’ll have all that time to ourselves is rather appealing.

That’s true, most of us don’t love our jobs, and having year-long holidays sounds great. But what happens to demand if only 20 percent of the population is working? The rich won’t buy thousands of cars, phones, computers etc. because they won’t need as many. On the other hand, those without jobs won’t have money to buy them either.

Let’s say that everyone will have a guaranteed income then. And things will be so cheap, as machines will manufacture them, that they might even be subsidized.

The idea of a guaranteed income is not new, there have already been referendums on passing such laws in some countries. But the history of mankind and different utopias we have thought of, and even tried to implement, have shown us that it doesn’t work that way. People are different, they don’t like or want the same things and no regime will change that. It’s not possible for every human in the world to have the same things. Then what? Do we create criteria, according to which people will earn accordingly? For example, the older you get, the more you receive. But is that fair? This will create conflict that cannot be resolved. Others, which I don’t agree with, say that when we’re freed of all the ‘shackles’ of work, we’ll be able to concentrate on our creativity. But even then we need people to consume our creations. So, we would get to the point at which only the richest could afford the best items. If we all have the same things, we won’t be able to consume all of it. So we lose the motivation to create. It’s a vicious circle.

Coming back to the present, and the problems the EU is having, all of the major issues – Brexit, migration, terrorism – also affect the labor market.

Of course, after Brexit the question we all asked ourselves in Poland is what will happen with the Poles who left for the UK in droves. Will they return here, or will they move somewhere else? Despite the incentives made by the previous and current governments, many are wary of coming back as they know they will earn more somewhere else and have more flexible regulations, so establishing a company for example is way easier in most places than it is here.

This could create tensions elsewhere, because one, if not the main reason why people in the UK voted for Brexit was migration, and with so many people moving to other countries looking for jobs it could have a domino effect.

Of course. It’s obvious now that the inclusion of CEE countries into the EU was something the bloc was not prepared for. Both sides have different agendas. Before, despite all kinds of regulations and policies, all members could sit down and work out a consensus. When you added CEE countries into the mix, coming to an agreement proved very hard because of cultural and economic reasons. The gap between West and East was simply too big. In the beginning, new members had numerous privileges, not only cohesion funds, but also due to the existing landscape, they could provide services and goods much more cheaply than the old countries. Polish transport companies, thanks to low wages, pushed foreign competitors out of the market for example. But now, after the economic crisis hit the West so hard, they want to level the playing field, that’s why there’s a draft of a resolution forcing everyone to pay the wages of the countries they operate in. Meaning that if a driver goes through Germany to transport goods he should be paid the same as a German driver for that part of the journey. This will hurt Polish companies, as they would have to pay their workers much more and consequently lose their competitive edge.

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