Lately, Israel and America seem to be suffering from a highly unusual economic complaint: not enough workers, even when unemployment is at relatively high levels. There are several possible reasons for this, but most pundits view this as emanating from employees who want a higher salary and/or jobs that don’t deaden the soul. Unfortunately, in the mid-to-long term, this could prove to boomerang on them in a big way.
Some examples: Among other professions, the US is currently short 80,000 truckers — the industry’s all-time high. Open nursing job positions are more than 250% higher this year compared to last year, with all projections showing things will only get worse. Over a quarter of restaurants can’t find enough cooks (and other restaurant worker job shortages are almost as bad). All these when in August 2021 (the last month for which data is available), 4.3 million US workers left their jobs — the highest total ever recorded!
In Israel, the problem seems to be most acute among high-tech workers, with the country suffering from a shortfall of 15,000 to 18,000 programmers and engineers each year. And this isn’t a specific problem of highly skilled work. Overall, 65% (!) of Israeli employers are having trouble finding enough workers.
The trend to demanding more meaningful work and better pay is certainly worthy of note – and positive from a purely humanistic standpoint. No one today wants to work in mind-numbing, assembly line, Charlie Chaplinesque “Modern Times” types of employment – and they shouldn’t have to. Nor in this era of rising economic inequality (Israeli inequality is as bad as in the US), should workers be financially short-changed for their effort. The problem, though, lies not in humanism but in economic reality. Israel’s high-tech sector is perhaps the best place to show what could happen.
Although all sorts of algorithmic applications (e.g., WAZE) make the headlines, the real “action” – what will eventually shape our economic future – lies in Artificial Intelligence (AI), a field in which Israel also counts itself among the world leaders with over 2400 startup companies specializing in AI. While such R&D is terrific for Israel’s economy today (and the US is even more advanced in the field), the future of an economy based on AI is highly problematic precisely because of its vast potential. To put it simply (and not overly simplistically): AI will put millions of people out of a job because of the efficiency and economic savings of having a “computer” do the work instead of a person.
Already today AI is writing some of the sports and finance articles you read in the papers; diagnosing radiology pictures for cancers and other illnesses; slowly moving transportation into the age of vehicular automation (Norway just launched the world’s fully Autonomous Cargo Ship) and even enabling robots to serve as elderly caretakers in Japan; the list goes on, and on… in virtually every field of endeavor. Computers can even program new computer code!
“Not to worry,” many researchers opine. “We’ve seen this sort of trend before in history. For every type of job lost through technological progress, a completely new type of job has taken its place.” That’s true as far as it goes, but history doesn’t necessarily repeat (even if it tends to rhyme). But our contemporary situation might well be different. Here’s why.
All new jobs and professions in the past were based on increased human capabilities. The farmer needed to think more than the hunter-gatherer; the factory worker more than the farmer; the service worker more than the manufacturing employee; and finally, today’s information era worker more than the service worker. The problem? AI and related technologies will be capable of doing things at the highest “cognitive” level i.e., humans will not be able to “outthink” AI (information) and certainly cannot “outwork” autonomous robots (manufacturing and service) so that there won’t be enough jobs to go around for future generations.
And it is here that the unintended consequence of today’s “non-work” choice is liable to enter the picture. If funding for AI R&D was already high before COVID-19 and the contemporary choice of many workers not to seek employment (or be very choosy about where to work and in what), this will leave employers no choice but to invest far more in AI, thereby accelerating the trend to a robot and AI-driven economy.
This is not to suggest that Israel, the US, and other leading AI countries should jettison AI research. That’s not a solution. However, it is to suggest that they need to institute policies that will “disincentivize” non-work, or to put it more plainly: spend more on human education, change tax laws (corporate and individual) to make it more worthwhile for workers to seek work and for companies to hire humans, and in general to consider how to smooth the economy’s transition to greater reliance on AI without mass unemployment.
Adam and Eve’s punishment was that once banished from the Garden of Eden they had to labor in order to survive. It would be ironic – and even more socially painful – if we turned the tables by punishing ourselves with the abolition of humanly satisfying work.