Does The Useless Class Really Exist?
Harry Wang: So first, Yuval, you mentioned the term “useless class”. Are you serious about that?
Yuval Harari: Certainly. I don't mean useless from the view point of the mother, or husband, or children. In this sense, no person is ever useless.
I mean useless from the view point of the economic system. Largely because of automation and artificial intelligence being able to do many things better than human beings, people are becoming useless in the whole system and have no economic values to be discovered.
Harry Wang: Human may be the only species that cares about the purpose of living. The fear of starvation if we are not working is long gone, but just living a life doing nothing, living a life without purpose worries people.
Yuval Harari: I don’t think we should be that worried, because purpose does not need to involve work. Most jobs today in the world are not very meaningful or fun. If you are a university professor then ok, but if you drive a truck, or work at a textile factory ten hours a day, it’s not fun.
People need to do it to have food, to have subsistence. But I don't think people necessarily need a job in order to have purpose and meaning in life. This has been the case before, I believe it will be the case in the future.
Harry Wang: Got it. So JP, are you worried about the rise of the useless class?
JP Gan: In the beginning of 17th and 18th centuries during the industrial revolution, people talked about machines replacing peasants, millions of millions of peasants. But the fact is, many peasants went to factories making cars and driving trucks. I strongly believe that the “invisible hand” of free economy will fix things. We are worrying maybe a little bit too much.
The free market will evolve, will have new needs and create new jobs for those millions of people. Maybe we need maintenance workers to fix robots or other things, to give people things to do and to make them feel happy.
Harry Wang: So you are quite optimistic about it?
JP Gan: I try to be optimistic at least for today.
Is There a Way Out For the Useless Class?
Harry Wang: If there is a useless class in the future, what do you think it means for society?
From my understanding, if a lot of people are really out of jobs and are useless, it creates a problem, maybe a riot. Because they are always finding something to do, whether it is something they want to do or needed by society. But if there’s not enough jobs, what do you think will be the problem for society?
Yuval Harari: I think we need to think from several different perspectives.
The fact is, nobody knows what the job market will look like in 30 years. I am worried that even though in previous cases in history, the free market always created enough job for people so they were not replaced by machines, but this time it is different.
Because previously machines competed with human’s physical capabilities. But there are other jobs that required more complicated and higher-level skills.
And we don't know if a third kind of skill that people have beyond physical and cognitive skills that we still have an edge over the machines. So it is different from the 19th century.
Even if there are new jobs available, would people be able to re-train themselves fast enough to gain the necessary skills.
After agriculture was automated, people moved to work in factories in big cities. But you didn't need a lot of sophisticated skills to find a job as a worker in a factory. If you were 30 years old and you lost your job on a farm, then you moved to the city, and within a couple of weeks, you could find a job as an unskilled laborer in some factory.
But now when we think about new jobs in the future, we usually think about very high skilled jobs, like being a designer of 3D virtual games. If I lose my job as a truck driver or a textile worker, I won’t have the skills for a new job. We are not teaching people today in the world the necessary skills for finding a job in 30 years. So it is not just whether there are enough jobs, it is also whether people are able to do these jobs.
Harry Wang: So JP, how bad do you think the useless class could be for society?
JP Gan: I totally agree, a lot of jobs will become obsolete, no matter truck drivers or taxi drivers. But if you really think about it, why do you need a job?
Historically, because of the scarcity of our resources, you need a job to bring food to the table, to buy stuff. But now the resources are becoming more and more abundant, maybe people don't need to work to get clothes. Maybe working will become a pleasure and we will become passionate about working. Like Buffett, he goes to the office everyday.
Harry Wang: So you’re describing the coming of age of a true communist society.
JP Gan: Maybe that’s where we are going. Yuval, you made many references to Karl Marx in your book, stating that we should allocate resources based on our needs, and we should contribute based on our abilities. Maybe in the future, society will evolve like that. We go to work for fun. And you may even need to pay a tax in order to work.
Yuval Harari: I think this is possible. Two things worry me. First, from the historical perspective, whenever something becomes cheap and abundant, and everybody has it, then immediately, people expand their expectations and desires. They take it for granted, and they want more. And they get angry if they don’t get that something more.
If you look to the United States, many people who are unemployed get big houses, cars and all the food they can eat. More people die of too much food than not enough. So, you would think that everybody would be satisfied and happy. But they are not. Because they don’t compare themselves to people a thousand years ago and say to themselves “Oh, I have all these wonderful things that my great parents didn’t have”. They compare themselves to the upper classes. Then they become envious.
And my theory is even if you have a universal basic income for everybody on the planet and nobody needs to worry about food and basic health care anymore, there will always be some luxuries, some scarce resources that everybody wants. For example, everybody gets a house, but only one person can live in the first house next to the beach. It’s a scarce resource. And all the competition will be about that. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have much money and can’t make money, how would you compete in this situation?
The other problem is, like what you mentioned, the question of meaning. Where would people find meanings and purposes in life? There are all kinds of possibilities even in drugs and computer games.
Maybe people don’t need to work for a living, and they have so much spare time that they can just play computer games, three-dimensional virtual reality computer games, which are far more exciting than anything in the outside world. And, certainly, far more exciting than driving a taxi or truck.
Harry Wang: So maybe The Honor of Kings (popular Chinese mobile based MOBA game) is not that bad, right? [Laughs]
The last question of this topic is, if you happened to be stuck in this useless class, or you were born into this class, what would be the way out? For some, maybe it is fortunate since you don’t have to do anything. But for others, it’s unfortunate because you can’t find anything you want to do. So, what is the way out for those who want to get out of this class?
Yuval Harari: I’m afraid that for most people, it might be impossible to get out their situation, because the gap between the upper class and the useless class will be too big. And it might even be a biological gap.
In the past, there was no biological difference between an emperor and a peasant. They both are Homo sapiens. And through revolutions, a peasant can become an emperor, like what happened in the history.
But in 100 years, because of the development of biological engineering and artificial intelligence, maybe there is a real biological difference. And for the first time, it might be possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality. Then you don’t have the same abilities and skills.
Harry Wang: You are talking about X-men, right?
Yuval Harari: Not as radical as X-men. But given the new potential of things like genetic engineering and brain-computer interfaces, you could translate economic inequality into biological inequality. And then it becomes almost impossible to transcend, or close the gap.
JP Gan: Again, I’m optimistic. There must be some upward mobility between classes. Through studying hard, working hard, people may be able to figure out a better way to determine happiness or a meaningful life. Whether through starting a new company, new ways of computing, a new type of robotics or a new type of human body or organs, there has to be a way for people that come from the bottom to move up in the society. Upward mobility would be a major issue. And I believe, through technological advancement and new ideas, smart people will create better solutions to this issue.
AI: A Threat to Human Beings?
Harry Wang: Let’s move to the next topic, which is about AI safety, or security issues this technology will bring to us. My understanding of this topic is two-fold.
First is that AI is not reliable. Is that a big problem you worry about? For me, it’s a big factor when I’m selecting a company to invest. In some areas, it’s less concerning, while in certain areas, for example, self-driving cars, it’s a huge concern.
Second, due to not enough high-quality data and the imperfection of algorithms, the road to have a good AI will be bumpy. Then, what can we do to make the acceptance of AI an easy one? Are we doing enough today?
Yuval Harari: I think that in order to be accepted and to become a powerful force in the society, AI will not need to be perfect. It will just need to be better than humans. It’s not difficult, because humans are imperfect. For self-driving cars replacing human drivers, there still will be accidents. But as long as there are significantly fewer accidents, it will be acceptable.
Humans are terrible drivers. In the future, people may look back and say, they let humans drive cars, that’s crazy!.
Every year, car accidents kill twice as many people as all violence together. It’s about 600,000-700,000 people killed by war, crime, terrorism together every year around the world. How many people are killed in car accidents? Almost 1.3 million. And most of the car accidents are not because of some problems with the road. It’s because of problems with the human drivers. We drink alcohol and drive. We text message while driving and bump into somebody. And AI will be so much better. It will never drink alcohol and drive.
JP Gan: Obviously, we are still far away from the true commercialization of AI. We can talk to Siri on our iPhone, but the things we can do with it are still limited. I have been looking for a good speech recognition software. I can get some software with a 90-95% recognition rate. But it still won’t be 100%. I think we are still quite far away from using AI as a true assistant in our lives.
Another aspect is, we are talking about security and data. Do I want to tell a machine, my iPhone or Siri everything about myself? I actually don’t. I don’t want a machine that knows all my preferences and habits, or chooses which clothes I should wear and what restaurant I should go to on a daily basis. I think as a consumer, we should protect our privacy. That’s my opinion.
Harry Wang: OK, thanks both!