What happens as machines and artificial intelligence push humans out of the workforce? It’s one of the more important problems of our time — theoretical as it may seem in some sectors today — as technology makes industry after industry more efficient.
One of the most important tech overlords, Google CEO Larry Page, thinks most people want to work, but they’d be happy working less.
Page’s take: We have enough resources to provide for humanity. “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” Page said, in an interview at a private event put on by the venture capital firm Khosla Ventures that was just released online.
In fact, today humanity does dumb things like destroy the environment, in part because people work when they don’t have to, Page contended.
The answer isn’t to just cut jobs en masse, Page said. People want to feel “needed, wanted and have something productive to do.” But most everyone would like a little more time off. So perhaps one solution would be to split up part-time work between people, as Page said Richard Branson is experimenting with in the U.K.
Page’s co-founder Sergey Brin had a slightly different take. “I do think that a lot of the things that people do have been, over the past century, replaced by machines and will continue to be,” Brin said. But after Page opined about his idea of “slightly less employment,” Brin interjected to say, “I don’t think that in the near term, the need for labor is going away. It gets shifted from one place to another, but people always want more stuff or more entertainment or more creativity or more something.”
Here’s the relevant segment:
Sergey Brin: I do think that a lot of the things that people do have been, over the past century, replaced by machines and will continue to be.
Larry Page: 90 percent of people used to be farmers. So it’s happened before. It’s not surprising.
Vinod Khosla, interviewer and long-time technology investor who tried to buy Google when it first started: The vast majority of employment shifted from farming to only needing about two percent of the U.S. workforce. That happened between 1900 and the year 2000. I see the beginnings of that happening again with the rapid acceleration the next 10, 15, 20 years.
Page: I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance, like the Peter Diamandis book. If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy: housing, security, opportunity for your kids. I mean, anthropologists have identified these things. It’s not that hard for us to provide those things. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I’m guessing less than 1 percent at the moment. So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true. I do think there’s a problem that we don’t recognize that. I think there’s also a social problem that a lot of people aren’t happy if they don’t have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. You need to feel like you’re needed, wanted and have something productive to do. But I think the mix with that and the industries we actually need and so on are — there’s not a good correspondence. That’s why we’re busy destroying the environment and doing other things maybe we don’t need to be doing. So I’m pretty worried until we figure that out, we’re not going to have a good outcome. One thing, I was just talking to Richard Branson about this. They have a huge problem that they don’t have enough jobs in the U.K. So he’s been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time. So at least, the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job. And it’s a slightly greater cost for employers. I was thinking, the extension of that is you have global unemployment or widespread unemployment. You just reduce work time. Everyone I’ve asked — I’ve asked a lot of people about this. Maybe not you guys, but most people, if I ask them, “Would you like an extra week of vacation?” They raise their hands, 100 percent of the people. “Two weeks [of vacation], or a four-day work week?” Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to do their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the work week. And then, if you had slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.
Brin: I will quibble a little bit. I don’t think that in the near term, the need for labor is going away. It gets shifted from one place to another, but people always want more stuff or more entertainment or more creativity or more something.