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The Labor Transition: Shall we prepare for an “end of work”?
Cyril Gazengel   Mar 14, 2014   Ethical Technology  

In a time of emerging technologies, while artificial intelligence and adaptability of robots is getting better, a new problem may come up: will machines monopolize all active positions in our society? This fear is already topical and enabled resurgence and modernization of the Luddite thinking.(1)

This article was written in French and translated into English by Technoprog! member Cyril Gazengel, and posted here by Marc Roux on his behalf.

Impact of technology on the labor market

This issue is intensified by the current global crisis where some already detect beginnings of that development while others don’t. Nevertheless, example of Chinese giant FoxConn, (2) first worldwide electronic producer, who in 2011 claimed its will to replace one million workers by robots,(3) calls to mind. We would therefore be on the cusp of a major change redefining our concept of work, and perhaps our society. Like the passage from agrarian societies using servitude to industrial age based on wage system, we will probably have in this century to reinvent the social contract in order to adapt it to these new constraints. These issues are for instance very well illustrated in the two essays “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK”(4) and “Race Against the Machine”.(5)

The problem is not new though... technology has always helped mankind frees itself from constraints of the time as new tasks could be performed. What is new here is the runaway phenomenon. In the past, workers released from a task by productivity gains found their livelihood in another. Economy always managed to generate new opportunities at a sufficient rate to absorb employment and population growth applicants. Hence the rural exodus retraining into workers an army of sharecroppers and serfs... then after the beginning of automation early factory work, described in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, was transformed and diminished in the West to see the tertiary sector to absorb this “liberated” labor force. Finally, the factory work was deported to countries with lower labor costs because they had not yet crossed the Lewis Turning Point where half of the rural exodus has taken place creating an upward constraint on wages. China could have already reached this point(6) and it’s a reason that motivates FoxConn to automate its factories, reducing costs and then avoiding relocation.

Automation has therefore become mature enough to replace workers, but can it be developed to replace wage employment in the tertiary sector? Apparently so. Yet, after automation comes lightout manufacturing,(7) fully autonomous and no man’s plants. Needless, lights and air conditioning are off and they can run for 30 days without interruption nor human intervention; however, man is still at one time required as a team of engineers performing maintenance every month. And outside industry, the phenomenon is also seen with expert systems that can replace doctors in medical diagnostics, traders in finance and so forth...

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Rome and China Ming, some instructive historical precedents

It seems credible that radical changes implied by NBIC will impose to rethink (8) our relationship to work. This kind of thinking was already necessary albeit to a lesser extent in the past: during the passage from agrarian societies heavily based on serfdom whose most aggressive form was the triangular trade,(9) to employmentbased industrial companies.

This occasion of a changeover from an agricultural society to an industrial one was already in gestation within two major preindustrial empires: Rome and China Ming. Both failed to invent any industrial economy and remained ultimately agrarian communities, why that? Perhaps it’s due to their inability to think a society along radically new benchmarks. Fifteenth century China ended up back on itself and consequently turned away from modernity, leaving behindhand Europe coast free to soar up.

The Roman case is more interesting by means of a fable, if not reflecting reality it illustrates though issues imposed by intelligent machines development. The story about Heron of Alexandria who invented a rudimentary steam machine in the first century AD: The Aeolipile.(10) But it hadn’t triggered any industrial revolution. Even if British researcher John Landels has demonstrated in 1978 that its energy cost was probably the cause, moral of this story is much more interesting. It tells us that Heron showed the sages his invention and they quartered his machine to a secondary role, obstructing path to revolution in science and technology, claiming: “But, what will we do of our slaves?” This illustrates the fact that a mental block can lead to a refusal of an innovation, blockage increased by apparent magnitude of the emerging challenge because it requires us to rethink how our society is structured and values it conveys.

Will humankind become obsolete?

The main fear about the very image of machines replacing humans is the one of mankind obsolescence. This idea that our civilization will evolve into a world like Matrix, where we would be relegated to a mere peripheral equipment became incapable of managing its destiny. But as illustrated by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in “Race Against The Machine”, this feeling of an obsolescent humanity is linked to a vision of humans competing against the machine instead of man working with it. The question is to define this “with” and which concepts it underlies? Classical notion of tools external and fully subdue to man probably lived with the arrival of autonomous machines. A concept that may emerge is “partnership”. After having been for centuries a simple tool, our machines would become associated with us; and thus this manmachine duo creation, made effective by osmosis between our animal adaptability and digital speed and highprecision, will allow both sides to find a new place and prosper. Another way is the idea of anthropotechny,(11) working directly on bodies to the point of permanently blurring distinction between man and machine. This is of course a longerterm prospective vision and in a more practical and immediate point of view, what can be done when we see autonomous systems outperform humans in such a specific domain as medical diagnosis?(12) We will discuss some possible solutions in the rest of this article.

8 Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science

First trail: the universal income (13) 

One of the ideas to overcome evaporation of work captured by intelligent machines is to allocate a basic income to every citizen. Freed from financial pressure imposed by longterm unemployment in a society requiring a living wage, former workers could grapple with their new social status more serenely. In a way, this permanent and unconditional allocation would avoid the nightmare of science fiction dystopia, where most of the population has been confined in absolute poverty when some rich assured of inherited annuity live in opulence. If application of this income is made in a logic of an “end of work by automating” unincentive effect announced on motivating people to create wealth through labor is no longer the main problem it could pose – this demotivating effect has indeed been observed in some experiments conducted in the United States or in Canada, but it wasn’t significant though. So we are anyway far from the massive withdrawal of any professional activity.

This idea has the merit to be truly innovative, but will it solve the labor transition issue? The question remains open and some criticisms on basic income(14) fluctuate between forecast of an inflationary effect, welfare trap(15) reproach or negative comments on something seen as a nonfundable utopian project; all these criticisms forced its champions to find relevant answers.(16) Finally, opinions also oppose those seeing this income as something releasing energies from the fear of job security hazards, bringing our societies into a new era, more dynamic and prosperous; and on the opposite those seeing in it a system giving birth to a world of rent became fearful to any change and thus to innovation.

The reflection is on the way already, Switzerland is facing a petition requiring its parliamentarians to study establishment of such universal income in the country.(17)

Second trail: educational revolution and barriers to entry

A second track, mentioned in particular in “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK” by Frederico Pistono, is to remove one of the main of the barriers to entry into the labor market: education.

Surprisingly since Plato's Academy teaching has not really changed in its basic asymmetric structure of a master in charge of disciples. In addition, in many countries education is a luxury because, formalized as it is today, it requires resources that are not available to all. Therefore our access to high standard knowledge is still largely conditioned by our birthplace and our social class.

Then, in September 2006, Salman Khan launched Khan Academy.(18) It appears to be a new way to teach using all the power of video through a site like Youtube, giving more freedom to the disciple in his relationship with his master. Furthermore, in the line of open source movement, everything was put online for free.


This site has revolutionized teaching and in 2012, inspired by this example, Sebastian Thrun (The man behind Google selfdriving cars) and Peter Norvig (Author of the classic “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach” with Stuart J. Russel), both professors at Stanford, began their online course: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. Free of charges, available via the Web, high level, this introduction to programming in artificial intelligence gathered 58,000 people around the world, literally. With this attempt, social and financial barriers to entry vanished. The experiment was successful: Sebastian Thrun, marked by some moving testimonies of people who have taken this course in extremely difficult conditions, left Stanford to found Udacity, (19) and Stanford turned the experience into Coursera,(20) a site gathering free courses over some largest worldwide universities from U.S. to the Western World and even Asian ones.

It’s possible that this educational revolution, getting along with labor transition, makes it less harsh; and even, associated with universal income, it can gives our societies the flexibility needed to allow transfer of activities at work since the beginnings of civilization to continue. This migration of workers freed from jobs destroyed by progress towards a new activity will continue because individuals can more easily acquire complex skills intimately linked to this knowledgebased society that NBIC revolution will bring us.

Moreover, with 3D printing(21) and crowdfunding(22) we could have a triptych at work giving rise to a new economic standard. 3D printing frees us from the necessity of factories, mass production and inventory management. We produce only the bare necessities without extra cost. Only large companies can afford the implementation of conventional industrial infrastructure. And nowadays, it requires a creative mind an additional effort to put his ideas available to the greatest number. Besides this, the crowdfunding frees funding from institutional constraints allowing anyone to fund a project that would enthrall. Iconoclastic views have little resonance among institutional accustomed to little risk taking and proven approaches; these groundbreaking projects could find supporters in the population as risk is diluted to the extreme by pooling funding. In this way, technological breakthrough projects with uncertain outlets could lead then accelerate innovation and thus the adaptability of our societies to the new economic situation.

Ultimately, these three points take out significant barriers to entry that necessary industrial era economies of scale imposed on us. Associated with the Internet and the “Global Village”: after era of local crafts followed after the nineteenth century by global industry, could rise era of global craft.

Third trail: Enhanced human

One last option remains, a lot more speculative and therefore far more uncertain: human enhancement to no longer compete with machines, but to be in a symbiotic state with them.

Genome manipulation, embryo selection, invasive implants or mind uploading: many of these scenarios are possible. A book, “Singularity Rising”(23) by James D. Miller illustrates quite extensively these different paths where mankind, having passed the taboo of his own improvement, integrates itself to technology race. All these approaches to enhanced humans can be divided into three major (24) groups:


  • Our genome as a language

One possibility appeared in recent years is that of the improvement of mankind by direct manipulation of genes. Radical solution that, given the current state of tension concerning debate on GMOs, will likely become central when the question of human improvement by creating GM babies come in the news.

Right now, in France, a bioethics law prohibits cloning and genetic manipulation on human embryos, but elsewhere in the world such legal or ethical barriers do not necessarily arise. China, for example, does not prohibit this course and a genetic selection (25) program of individuals, aiming to increase prevalence of intelligence genes in the population, is in progress. Direct manipulation of genes may follow in order to endow some persons with improved abilities. Certainly, Chinese example is clearly oriented with a view to global competition between states and economies in search of a competitive advantage, contestable by the threat of dehumanization it holds.

Nevertheless, as George M. Church and Ed Regis described it in “Regenesis”(26) this improvement can be made in a more noble perspective: that of giving humans a better longer and healthier life. Humanity might well be wiser and better able to integrate into this new postlabor world, wiser like the genetic posthumans in the novel “The Elementary Particles” (Also known as “Atomised”) by Michel Houellebecq.

  • The kurweilian merger

Another path: Ray Kurzweil in his wellknown essay “The Singularity Is Near”27 described with such acuity the phenomenon of fusion between humans and technology that the way he described it, James D. Miller calls it kurweilian merger.

It’s the classic cyborg described in cyberpunk movement(28) initiated by William Gibson in the 1980s with cybernetic implants. Today, laboratories can graft neural robotic member directly driven by our mind;(29) tomorrow, colonization of the body by the technology probably go through nanotechnology and will be more pervasive. We would then have a world comparable to that described in the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution where, massively improved, humanity could embrace the exponential growth of digital technologies defined in Moore's Law.(30) 

  • Emulated minds economy

A third major possibility that can enable mankind to catch up with scientific progress without being become obsolete is to pass on digital media via mind uploading.31 Economist Robin Hanson has theorized about a world where we will upload our mind on a computer. This digital version would be multiplied as needed as duplication is one of the foundations of any digital data.


These selfemulations would then work and create wealth for the biological original copy of these minds. Indeed, the biological brains cannot keep pace in a world where all the work would be done at the speed of electronics that is almost the speed of light. We, biological beings, would become annuitants living on income brought back by our avatars.

Question remains whether these emulations could become aware to the point that they’ll refuse the servitude imposed by their original self. They would thus live their lives independently to the extent of leaving their original without income or livelihoods. In this way, cut from radical speed of the digital world, the biological individual would no longer keep pace: that of a world where the second would be long time.

‚ÄčIn conclusion, facing a possible evaporation of human performed labor, we have seen above that possible solutions could be radical. History requires us attention as it left its traces in eugenic past approaches which mark our civilization of their violence. But nothing requires us to make same mistakes, as long as those who refuse to enter into this logic of mankind enhancement are not placed on the side and ostracized, and as long as our human empathy remains at the center of our values.

However, it’s interesting to note that above developments seem so radical that, except prospectivists like Ray Kurzweil or Robin Hanson, most cultural works appropriating them describe dystopias. They act as whistleblowers, because in fact, this issue raises the question of what we want to make of our society. We must be careful not to distort our humanity while appropriating these technologies and the tremendous benefits they could bring us, and improve our quality of life. After having used “Birth” value as discriminant element at the center of agrarian societies, and afterwards “Work” value at the center of industrial societies... maybe it’s time to put “Knowledge” value at the center, knowledge in a sense of enrichment of people like Gene Roddenberry imagined it when he conceptualized the utopian world of Star Trek.(32) 

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Cyril Gazengel is one of the staff members of French Transhumanist Association. Computer science engineer in the banking industry, he made a talk in Paris in 2013 about automation and its consequences for employment. He was also amongst the speakers of TransVision 2014 on the same subject. He also appeared in the French television documentary Robolution about robotic revolution and was interviewed on transhumanism by French radio Radio France International and other local parisian web-radios. His main concern about transhumanism focuses on artificial intelligence, man-machine fusion and the consequences of that on our societies.


You say in your section on Universal Basic Income that “this demotivating effect has indeed been observed in some experiments conducted in the United States or in Canada” in regards to UBI. But I think there’s a case to be argued that that there was no demotivation (unless motivation is only related to wage labour.) As we saw in Canada’s experiment dubbed Mincome that “Mothers spent more time rearing newborns, and the educational impacts are regarded as a success. Students in these families showed higher test scores and lower dropout rates. There was also an increase in adults continuing education.” So people weren’t just going home and sitting on their couch all day; instead they were raising their children and pursuing their dreams as opposed to working a job they most probably didn’t enjoy just to get by.
I just felt obliged to point that out. Very well written article, mate! Thank you very much.

Agreed, if we consider private useful activities like raising newborns or educational focus, you’re right, there was no real demotivating effect leading to idleness. What I meant is that universal income lead to a marginal loss of activity in the labor market alone, even if we don’t take into consideration these private activities.

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