What about their jobs?

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I work at a company involved in machine learning. Some of the applications of machine learning were mentioned, one of them being autonomous vehicles.

A lady in our company, not on the tech side, of course, wondered aloud, “Why do people want autonomous vehicles?” I replied to her, “It will save billions and billions of dollars.” She asked, “How?” I said, “Imagine never having to pay a taxi driver ever again.”

Her instinct was, “What about their jobs?” My reply was, “Go look up ‘luddite’ on Google.”

Any new technology is going to eliminate jobs. The bigger and better the change, the more jobs that will disappear. It has been this way ever since the beginning of time. Today, in America, only a tiny fraction of our population is involved in farming. It used to be the vast majority of people were working farms. This is one example of how technology has eliminated jobs.

People erroneously think that jobs are a zero-sum game. That is, there can only be so many jobs in the world, and when jobs are lost, they are never coming back. While it is true there can only be so many jobs in the world (after all, there are only so many people), it is not true that eliminating some jobs will mean there are fewer jobs overall.

See, jobs don’t really exist, not like tables and chairs. Jobs have zero mass, zero energy. Jobs can be created as quickly as they are destroyed. Jobs are created when a boss says, “You’re hired!” and disappear when they say “You’re fired!”

A better way to look at it is this. Consider each possible job there could ever be. This would be something much greater than the number of people in the world squared, since each person could potentially offer any particular other person an infinite number of possible jobs.

For each possible job, consider that the person hiring the other person can pay any amount of money, from $0 to all the money in the world. Also consider that the value of the work can be anything from negative to infinite. That is, I could hire someone, and they could burn down my business and get me thrown in jail, or they could make me the richest person in the history of the earth.

That’s the total number of jobs that can ever exist.

The jobs that are currently active are those jobs where the cost is smaller than the benefit. If it weren’t so, the person hiring would fire the employee, since they cost more than they bring in. That’s just simple math.

But that’s not enough. In addition to that, the person hired has to accept the job, meaning, they will likely look around for a better job if it exists. So really, the total number of current jobs is all those jobs where the employer would make some money at least, and all those people who are willing to work for that price because there’s not much better out there.

What happens when new technology, like autonomous vehicles, come alone, is the value of the jobs all shift. Driving is not so valuable anymore because a machine can do it for cheaper, faster, better. That means those jobs go away, but there are a very large number of other, potential jobs. All the taxi drives, all the uber drivers, everyone everywhere who drives, will find something else to do.

Granted, it might not pay as much. That’s sad. But the truth is, with the new technology, money is more valuable. It can buy more than it used to. So even if they get paid less, they can take a little solace in the fact that it’s now cheaper to get a ride.

But usually, new technologies create new opportunities. For instance, how many people were employed programming robots in automated factories in the 1920’s? Today, we have a very large number of people involved in the problem of programming robots and making new robots, opportunities that didn’t exist a long time ago. So while taxi drivers won’t be driving taxis anymore, they may be doing something much more valuable, like programming those taxi cabs or maybe something we can’t even imagine. After all, if I told you ten years ago that there would be a lot of people driving uber, you’d think I was crazy. Those jobs came into existence because technology made it cheap enough to do something like that.

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