Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Jobs in the Age of the Robot- Part3: The Sharing Economy

The real revolution in employment is coming from a different direction: the "sharing economy". Companies such as Airbnb, that matches people who own rooms and people looking for rooms to rent, and Uber, that matches drivers who own a car and people looking for a ride in a car, have introduced a revolutionary paradigm in the job market: let people monetize under-utilized assets. This concept will soon be applied in dozens of different fields, allowing ordinary people to find ordinary customers for their ordinary assets; or, in other words, to supply labor and skills on demand. Before the industrial revolution most jobs were in the countryside but urban industry existed and it consisted mainly of artisan shops. The artisans would occasionally travel to a regional market, but mostly it was the customer who looked for the artisan, not viceversa. Cities like Firenze (Florence) had streets devoted to specific crafts, so that a customer could easily find where all the artisans offering a certain product were located. Then came the age of the factory and of transportation, and industrialization created the "firm" employing thousands of workers organized in some kind of hierarchy. Having a job came to mean something else: being employed. Eventually society started counting "unemployed" people, i.e. people who would like to work for an employer but no employer wants their time or skills. The smartphone and the Internet are enabling a return of sorts to the model of the artisan era. Anybody can offer their time and skills to anybody who wants them. The "firm" is simply the intermediary that allows customers to find the modern equivalent of the artisan.

In a sense, the "firm" (such as Uber or Airbnb) plays the role that the artisan street used to play in Firenze. Everybody who has time and/or skills to offer can now become a "self-employed" person. And that "self-employed" person can work when she wants, not necessarily from 8 to 5. There is no need for an office and for hiring contracts.

The traditional firm has a workforce that needs to be fully employed all the time, and sometimes the firm has to lay off workers and sometimes has to hire some, according to complicated strategic calculations.

In the sharing economy, no such thing exists: the firm is replaced by a community of skilled workers who take the jobs they want to take, when they want to take them, and if the customer wants them to take them. In a sense, people can be fired and hired on the fly.

Of course, this means that "good jobs" will no longer be judged based on job promotions, salary increases and benefits. They will be based on customer demand (which in theory is what drives company's revenues which in turn drives job promotions, salary increases and benefits).

The unemployed person who finds it difficult to find a job in a firm is someone whose skill is not desired by any firm, but this does not mean that those skills are not desired by any customer. The firm introduced a huge interface between customer and worker. When there is a need for your skill, you have to hope that a manager learns of your skills, usually represented by a resume that you submitted to the human resources department, and hope that the financial officer will approve the hiring. The simple match-making between a customer who wants a service and the skilled worker who can provide that service gets complicated by the nature of the firm with its hierarchical structure and its system of checks and balances (not to mention internal politics and managerial incompetence). It would obviously be easier to let the customer deal directly with the skilled worker who can offer the required service.

Until the 2000s the problem was that the customer had no easy way to access skilled workers other than through the "yellow pages", i.e. the firms. Internet-based sharing systems remove the layers of intermediaries except one (the match-making platform, which basically provides the economy of scale). In fact, these platforms turn the model upside down: instead of a worker looking for employment in a firm that is looking for customers, the new model views customers as looking for workers. Not only does this model bypass the slow and dumb firm, but it also allows you to monetize assets that you own and you never perceived as assets. A car is an asset. You use it to go to work and to go on vacation, but, when it is parked in the garage, it is an under-utilized asset.

Marketing used to be a scientific process to shovel a new product down the throat of reluctant consumers: it now becomes a simple algorithm allowing customers to pick their skilled workers, an algorithm that basically combines the technology of online dating (match making), of auctions (bidding) and of consumer rating (that basically replaces the traditional "performance appraisal" prescribed in the traditional firm).

Of course, the downside of this new economy is that the worker has none of the protections that she had in the old economy: no security that tomorrow she will make money, no corporate pension plan, etc; and she is in charge of training herself to keep herself competitive in her business. The responsibility for a worker's future was mostly offloaded to the firm. In the sharing economy that responsibility shifts entirely to the worker herself.

The new proletariat is self-employed, and, basically, each member of the proletariat is actually a micro-capitalist; the price to pay is that the worker will have to shoulder the same responsibilities that traditionally have fallen into the realm of firm management.

People who worry about robots are thinking about the traditional jobs in the factory and the office.

Futurists have a unique way to completely miss the scientific revolutions that really matter.

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