Current debates over the automation of human jobs by AI tend to focus on how fast it will proceed: some jobs will be safe for the next decade, some for the next half-century, some for the foreseeable future. In this essay I want to take a different approach, by asking which (if any) jobs will continue to be done by humans even after the development of arbitrarily advanced technology.

[Here I've omitted a long section on why AI is capable of becoming arbitrarily competent; it was relevant to the original competition into which this essay was entered, but it's nothing new to anyone on this site. See my linked blog for the full post and references].

The fact that AI will eventually utterly outclass humans in performance on any given information-processing task does not mean that humans will necessarily be shut out from those industries: by Ricardian comparative advantage, it could still be profitable to employ humans even when they have no absolute advantage over AI. [6] However, since copying software is trivially easy, and the price of hardware continues to plummet, such roles will be very limited, especially if there is any sector of the economy in which humans have a comparative advantage over AI.

I claim that there is such a sector, consisting of what I shall call 'social jobs’. I define these as jobs where most or all of the value produced comes not from their outputs, but from the fact that they are being performed by other humans. The principle is most clearly illustrated by personal relationships: we want friends and partners who not only say and do the right things, but also really feel love and respect for us. In the economic sphere, there are particularly important social components of jobs in sales, management and leadership, and entertainment. To understand them, it's instructive to consider jobs whose value is almost entirely tied to the fact that humans are involved. Take chess, for instance. If we view the value of professional chess players as due to their production of high-quality games, then the advent of superhuman chess engines has rendered them entirely redundant. Yet professional chess not only still exists, but also features ever-growing prize pools. [7] So we are better to model chess players as entertainers, whose humanity is central to the existence of their jobs.

There are plenty more examples to consider. Fans of sports matches or rock concerts could often see and hear the performances better if they watched a broadcast from home; however, as with most entertainment, it's the atmosphere and sense of connection with the people around them that they value more. A robot could say and do all the same things as a lobbyist or politician, but still wouldn't thereby build the personal relationships that are crucial for both jobs. An AI counselor might be much more knowledgeable about psychology than a human one, and yet be much less able to convince the patient that someone actually cares about them. In all these cases, the outputs produced by an AI may be very similar to or better than a human's, but we would assign the latter much more value, because we care that there is a person on the other end of each interaction. In fact, humans will be able to do such jobs much better by incorporating analysis from AIs into their judgements - but human participation will still be essential.

Growth in these roles, and the social economy overall, will be driven by massive increases in overall wealth. Piketty estimated that world GDP increased by a factor of 140 between 1700 and 2012. [8] Historically, such gains have led to significantly increased spending on entertainment, and the rapid expansion of intrinsically social sectors like fashion and tourism. [9] Such spending is the most likely to support irreplaceable human jobs in the long term, for the reasons I outlined above - and there are good reasons to think that the current "Fourth Industrial Revolution" will be of even greater scale than its predecessors, allowing these social industries to grow rapidly. [10]

It may seem that, even so, there will simply not be enough social jobs for everyone. However, it’s unlikely that the current dichotomy between employment and unemployment will last indefinitely: technology is very good at introducing flexibility to previously rigid systems. Amazon's Mechanical Turk, for instance, is a marketplace where people can be paid for doing various tasks whenever they want, without any commitment or fixed hours. Driving for Uber or Lyft is the same. There are also now many games where you can trade virtual goods gained during gameplay for real money. These particular opportunities will eventually be automated away, but there will be plenty of replacements - and if global wealth increases to the extent suggested above, then such part-time jobs will be sufficient to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

In fact, we are already seeing surges in flexible social jobs, driven by the ease of connecting with people online. "Social media influencers" such as Instagram stars can earn millions; so can motivational speakers and life coaches with popular Youtube videos. [11] The massive earning power of media figures and celebrities is not a new phenomenon, but it's important to note the decreasing barriers to entry. Anyone can set up an Instagram account and start amassing followers (even if right now only a few can monetise effectively). Meanwhile, websites like Patreon, Kickstarter and meetup.com allow grassroots entrepreneurs and content creators to reach larger audiences (and profits) while remaining responsive to their supporters.

The ability of technology to facilitate peer-to-peer interactions suggests the potential for social jobs to become far more bottom-up (as opposed to the top-down model epitomised by TV culture). For example, during the last century an incredibly broad array of subcultures - from board game enthusiasts to queer communities to the worldwide competitive debating circuit - have largely been run by unpaid volunteers. However, if more wealth will indeed be funnelled into entertainment and leisure as the AI revolution progresses, and tools for distributing this money continue to be developed, then the economies of these communities will become more complex, with more opportunities to translate passion for a subculture into a decent wage. This is exactly what happened in many sports over the last century as participation and viewership boomed. Now millions of people are employed in sports-related jobs - and many such roles will never be automated away while the sport lasts, because their social aspects are pivotal in tying their respective communities together, and because they confer prestige within each community.

The exact activities and achievements considered prestigious will, of course, be mediated by cultural factors. For example, domestic workers make up less than 1% of the workforce in developed countries but up to a dozen times that in other parts of the world. [12] A significant portion of this disparity can be attributed to cultural reticence towards hiring "servants" in the West. However, in general, consuming goods or services is more prestigious the more scarce or expensive they are. For example, in very poor countries possession of factory-made "Western" products can be a proud distinction. Yet in countries where automated production of goods is commonplace, it is the opposite: markets such as Etsy are able to charge a premium for handmade goods. In a future where goods and services can be produced incredibly cheaply by automation, the ability to hire other people to work for you will remain a scarce resource, and therefore will in general become more of a signal of social status. Fast food outlets, which compete mostly on price, lead the restaurant industry in automation; whereas the fanciest restaurants and hotels, which compete mostly on reputation, will likely always keep their human waiters, chefs, valets, receptionists and concierges.

The predictions I have outlined above depend on people still caring about the distinction between humans and AI. I think this is likely. Friendships and relationships are fundamentally based on a mutual emotional bonds and shared concsious experiences between equals. Of course, consciousness is mysterious, and perhaps we will create AIs who (we are convinced) consciously feel emotions in the same way as humans. However, unless those AIs are specifically engineered to be very similar to humans, there will be certain facets of human relationships that they can't replicate. Could you feel like an equal in a friendship with a being who thinks ten thousand times faster than you, living a lifetime during each of your days? Or wholly trust a partner intelligent enough to manipulate you in any way they desired? I don't want to say that such shifts will never occur, but my best guess is that even in the very long term, most people will want their personal relationships to continue involving other humans. And as long as these non-transactional experiences are highly prized, then it will be economically valuable for human workers to evoke emotions that AIs do not. Even if distinguishing AIs from humans becomes difficult in some cases (e.g. via convincing facial and vocal simulations), it also seems likely that legal measures will be taken to prevent AIs from masquerading as human.

Finally, note that arguments above should not be taken to apply specifically to the coming few decades. Economically speaking, it is much more difficult to model transitions between equilibria than those equilibria themselves. While it seems very likely that most current jobs will eventually be replaced by the sorts of social jobs I described above, the exact path taken will depend on how fast technology advances, and how governments respond; the last few years have demonstrated that both of these factors are very tricky to predict. However, even when the most complex technical skills have become redundant, as long as the fundamentals impulses of human nature remain, there will still be an economy driven by humans and our social interactions.

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It is generally useful to try to extrapolate from the past to improve accuracy. How did people answer the question "What would the long-term future of employment look like?" in 1818? In 1918? In 1968? Notice how some ubiquitous jobs have unexpectedly disappeared, some rare ones have taken over, some completely new ones became essential, and some that everyone was sure would fade away, are still here to stay. Intentionally not giving specific examples to avoid limiting your own imagination.

Another, related point is that humans will likely be AI-enhanced and other-human-enhanced to the degree and in the direction that is hard to predict. Google Assistant connected to your brain? Too obvious. Think how no one expected 100% online always connected life 50 years ago. Well, maybe a few lucky guesses or SFF stories.

Specifically for the example of social influencers, I wonder if roles like this might be limited in capacity because, by virtue of their role, they require a large following. Given the way popularity and status tends to be non-uniformly distributed across social groups, it might not be a very large role for most people to fit into.

But overall, I think the underlying theme of humans-as-valuable-because-they-are-human and the examples to Etsy charging a premium on human-made things hits the nail on the head as for where residual value might lie in an automated future.

I suppose one corollary, too, is that it will be human desires which comprise the demand for these goods. If it turns out that automation also shifts the demand for certain services, via machines sending orders to machines, then this might also limit future options for humans?

While this response may well deserve to be a bit more tongue-in-cheek I wonder if there isn't some possibility. What if the followers are actually all the AIs that have been replacing the people? If all the IoT predictions on number of connected devices are correct the potential "population" is going to be huge.

Shimiux is also on to something very important I think. We keep casting the picture are AI replacing existing man but forget that what will quickly take place is the merger of technology and man -- including perhaps any number of subordinate AI elements in the enhanced human.

Difficulty of such predictions is why it's called "the singularity". Our unstated intuitions of what "value" is will break down when a sufficient amount of humans become unambiguously superfluous (meaning not only is there no job for them, there's no likely value they can provide to the AIs and human elite which justifies their CO2 and waste output).

You briefly touched on this as a function of growth, but I think the direct causality is generally underappreciated in the "robots are taking our jorbs" conversation: AI / automation replaces human labor because it is more efficient. That means the products produced through such means will be less expensive, and the more efficient AI becomes, the cheaper they get. So it's not just true that people will have to work fewer hours to maintain their current lifestyle because AI will grow the economy generally, but also directly because of the reduced cost of their output (and labor is a substantial portion of the cost of most goods today).

Why on Earth would human cost of living become cheaper in terms of human working hours? Humans are very inefficient users of resources compared to future AI.

Here's an analogy: if we introduced the same number of horses to London today as there were in 1900, could they all afford luxurious horse-lives by selling horse-labor? Nope! Most of them wouldn't even be able to afford rent. London's economy has way more efficient things to do than keeping lots of horses for their labor.

I wrote a post explaining this argument in more detail. The conclusion is that we must get AI values right, market dynamics won't save us.

Hmmm, I didn't find your linked post particularly related. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to understand the connection. It seems like you are talking about post-singularity ai, and I am certainly talking about pre-singularity. Sure, if the ai is actually looking at the atoms in our bodies as resources to fuel it's paperclip factory and has the power to take them, there's no cost of living adjustment that's going to offset being turned into paperclips. But the whole concept of the singularity is that it's kind of pointless to speculate about what happens afterwards anyway.

Given that I'm talking about near-term ai, all I'm trying to say is ai will take human jobs if and only if they reduce the input cost of production. That's a big downside for the person laid off, but a small upside multiplied many times over for everyone else. As the cost of goods falls, ceteris paribus people's real wages rise (tautologically). As ai become more efficient and capable of doing more tasks, prices tend towards pure resource cost for production of any given good. Ceteris paribus, under such conditions real wages would be enormously higher than nominal wages today.

This seems obvious to me, but I don't hear much about this upside from anyone in the ai is taking our jobs conversation.

My assertion, though you're right to point out it's just conjecture, is that even when nominal wages fall due to reduced working hours, this will be offset by huge increases in buying power.

I find your horse analogy flawed in 2 respects:

  1. in my scenario costs of inputs are reduced, whereas in London the cost of sufficient land to keep a horse and stable are vastly increased. If it was almost free to keep horses in London, I surmise they wouldn't have to do very much to earn their keep, and plenty would.

  2. in fact, we've see a huge increase in previously working and livestock species being kept as pets in both rural and urban environments as the cost of feeding and housing them fell, and all they offer in return is a vauge sense of companionship.

It would be interesting to look over how the business of entertainment has changed over time, with regards to the point of this post - entertainment is 'about humans', but has it 'really stayed the same' despite the effects of technology? There is a lot of entertainment which...doesn't involve people performing over and over again (i.e. movies, Netflix, etc.). Would people really care about the works of 'amazing human scriptwriters/producers/actors/animators' if AI could do it better - or is it just about 'the human audience' ?I'm not saying humans will 'eventually cease to have a role' - consider the price of Hamilton tickets - but is it more difficult to become an actor today? Could humans be pushed out of movies and solely into live performance?

And as long as these non-transactional experiences are highly prized, then it will be economically valuable for human workers to evoke emotions that AIs do not.

It seems useful to consider this converse:

As long as these (entertaining) transactional experiences (like Star Wars) are highly prized, it will be economically valuable for AIs to evoke emotions that humans do not.

There is only so much time for consumption. Do you buy handmade things?

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