Sixteen years into the twenty-first century we are trying to find solutions to its unique problems, especially those that are challenging the way we work, earn a living, and support our families, with ideas and methods that worked in the twentieth.
Most Americans, working or not, have lived through a very tough period, especially since the financial crash of 2008. What I have found from speaking with thousands of people from every economic strata is that they often blame themselves for not finding a permanent or good paying job; for getting laid off or working inconsistent hours; for taking multiple low wage jobs or contingent work just to make ends meet; for, especially in the case of recent college graduates, needing to move back into their parents’ house; for not building a nest egg or enough savings to retire; for working tirelessly so that their kids could go to college, and now their children can’t get a job.
What I want to say to each and every one is: This should not be about personal blame because the changes that are causing this jobless, wage-less recovery are structural. You worked hard. You played by the rules. You did exactly what you were supposed to do to fulfill your part of America’s social contract.
There is hope for our economy and future, but only if we come to terms with how the current explosion in technology is likely to create a shortage of jobs, a surplus of labor, and a bigger and bigger gap between the rich and poor over the next twenty years.
When I left my job as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2010, I undertook a five year journey to better understand the way technology is changing the economy and workplace, and to find a way to revive the American Dream. I have structured this book around many of the people I met on this journey, their assessment of the problem, my observations about whether I think they are on the money or just plain wrong, and then the solution of a universal basic income. That solution is a work in progress. I invite you to join me in debating it, refining it, and building a constituency for it, so that we can help America fulfill its historical promise to future generations of our children.
Andy Stern, Washington, DC, June 2016
Can we invent a better future?
“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Buffalo Springfield
CAMBRIDGE, MA. NOVEMBER 17, 2014
I am walking around one of the most out of this world places on earth, the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is a huge amount of brainpower here: more than twenty groups of MIT faculty, students, and researchers working on 350 projects that range from smart prostheses and sociable robots to advanced sensor networks and electronic ink. The Media Lab is famous for its emphasis on creative collaboration between the best and the brightest in disparate fields: scientists and engineers here work alongside artists, designers, philosophers, neurobiologists, and communications experts. Their mission is “to go beyond known boundaries and disciplines” and “beyond the obvious to the questions not yet asked, questions whose answers could radically improve the way people live, learn, express themselves, work, and play.”
Their motto, “inventing a better future”, conveys a forward looking confidence that’s been lacking in our nation since the 2008 financial crisis plunged us into a recession followed by a slow, anxiety inducing recovery.
On this cloudy November day, it seems that all the sunlight in Cambridge is streaming through the glass and metallic screens that cloak the Media Lab, rendering it a luminous bubble, or a glowing alternative universe. Architect Fumihiko Mako designed the building around a central atrium that rises six floors, “a kind of vertical street,” he called it, with spacious labs branching off on each floor. Walking up the atrium, you look through the glass walls and see groups of (mainly) young geniuses at work.
Or are they playing? I am struck by how casual and unhurried they seem. Whether they are lounging on couches, gathered around a computer screen, drawing equations on a wall, these inventors of the future seem to be having a whole lot of fun. That’s not how the thirty people who are leaders in the labor movement and the foundation world who accompanied me here would characterize their own workplaces. They have been grappling with growing income inequality, stagnant wages, and increasing poverty in the communities they serve, and also with political gridlock on Capitol Hill. It’s been harder for them to get funding and resources for the important work they do.
They have come here, as I have, to get a glimpse of how MIT’s wizards and their technologies will impact the millions of middle and lower income Americans whose lives are already being disrupted and diminished in the new digital economy. Will these emerging technologies create jobs or destroy them? Will they give lower and middle income families more or less access to the American Dream? Will they make my generation’s definition of a “job” obsolete for my kids and grandkids?
For the past five years, I’ve been on a personal journey to understand an issue that should be at the heart of our nation’s economic and social policies: the future of work. I have been interviewing CEOs, labor leaders, futurists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and historians to find answers to the following questions: After decades of globalization and technology driven growth, what will America’s workplaces look like in twenty years? Which job categories will be gone forever in the age of robotics and artificial intelligence? Which new ones, if any, will take their place?
The MIT Media Lab is one stop on that journey; since the early 1990s, it has been in the forefront of wireless communication, 3D printing, and digital computing. Looking around at my colleagues, I think: People like us, labor organizers, community activists, people at the helm of small foundations that work for social and economic justice, don’t usually visit places like this. We spend our time in factories and on farms, in fast food restaurants and in hospitals advocating for higher wages and better working conditions. While we refer to our organizations by acronyms, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), OSF (Open Society Foundations), and NDWA (National Domestic Workers Alliance)-there is one acronym most of us would never use to describe ourselves personally: STEM. Most of today’s discussion will involve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects and it will go way over our heads. Instead, we’ll be filtering what we see through our “progressive” justice, engagement, and empowerment lenses, and how we experience technology in our own lives.
Personally I am of two minds about technology. On the one hand, I want it to work well and make my life easier and more enjoyable. On the other, I’m afraid of the consequences if all of the futuristic promises of technology come to fruition.
As I wait for the first session to begin, I take out my iPhone and begin reading about the Media Lab’s CE 2.0 project. CE stands for consumer electronics, and CE 2.0 is “a collaboration with member companies to formulate the principles for a new generation of consumer electronics that are highly connected, seamlessly interoperable, situation-aware, and radically simpler to use,” according to the Media Lab’s website.
CE 2.0 sounds really, really great to me. Then I realize that I’m reading about it on the same iPhone that keeps dropping conference calls in my New York apartment to my partners and clients in other parts of the city. So how can I ever expect CE 2.0 to live up to the Media Lab’s hype? And then I find myself thinking: What if it does? What if CE 2.0 exceeds all the hype and disrupts a whole bunch of industries? Which jobs will become obsolete as a result of this new generation of consumer electronics? Electricians? The people who make batteries, plugs, and electrical wiring? I keep going back and forth between the promise and the hype and everything in between. Even though CE 2.0 is basically an abstraction to me, it conjures up all sorts of expectations and fears. And I think that many of my friends and colleagues have similar longings, doubts, and fears when it comes to technology.
All of the projects at the MIT Media Lab are supported by corporations. Twitter, for instance, has committed $10 million to the Laboratory for Social Machines, which is developing technologies that “make sense of semantic and social patterns across the broad span of public mass media, social media, data streams, and digital content.” Google Education is funding the Center for Mobile Learning, which seeks to innovate education through mobile computing. The corporations have no say in the direction of the research, or ownership of what the MIT researchers patent or produce; they simply have a front row seat as the researchers take the emerging technologies wherever their curiosity and the technology takes them.
Clearly, there is a counter cultural ethos to the Media Lab. Its nine governing principles are: “Resilience over strength. Pull over push. Risk over safety. Systems over objects. Compasses over maps. Practice over theory. Disobedience over compliance. Emergence over authority. Learning over education.” For me, that’s a welcome invitation to imagine, explore new frontiers, and dream.
Before we tour the various labs, Peter Cohen, the Media Lab’s Director of Development, tells us that there is an artistic or design component to most of the Media Lab’s projects. “Much of our work is displayed in museums,” he says. “And some are performed in concert halls.” One I particularly like is the brainchild of Tod Machover, who heads the Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group. Machover, who co-created the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band music video games, is composing a series of urban symphonies that attempt to capture the spirit of cities around the world. Using technology he’s developed that can collect and translate sounds into music, he enlists people who live, work, and make use of each city to help create a collective musical portrait of their town. To date, he’s captured the spirits of Toronto, Edinburgh, Perth, and Lucerne through his new technology. Now he is turning his attention to Detroit. I love this idea of getting factory workers, teachers, taxi cab drivers, police officers, and other people who live and work in Detroit involved in the creation of an urban symphony that can be performed so that the entire city can enjoy and take pride in it.
We head to the Biomechatronics Lab on the second floor. Luke Mooney, our guide to this lab, is pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT. Only twenty four, he has already designed and developed an energy efficient powered knee prosthesis. He shows us the prototype, a gleaming exoskeleton enveloping the knee of a sleek mannequin. Mooney created the prosthesis with an expert team of biophysicists, neuroscientists, and mechanical, biomedical, and tissue engineers. It will reduce the “metabolic cost of walking,” he tells us, making it easier for a sixty four year old with worn out knees and a regularly sore back like me to maybe run again and lift far more weight than I could ever have dreamed of lifting.
Looking around, I’m struck by the mess, coffee cups and Red Bull cans, plaster molds of ankles, knees, and feet, discarded tools and motors, lying all over the place, like the morning after a month of all nighters.
The founder of the Biomechatronics Lab, Hugh Herr, is out of town this day, but his life mission clearly animates the Lab. When he was seventeen, a rockclimbing accident resulted in the amputation of both his legs below his knees. Frustrated with the prosthetic devices on the market, he got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and a PhD in biophysics, and used that knowledge to design a prosthesis that enabled him to compete as an elite rock climber again. In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombings, he designed a special prosthesis for one of the victims: ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who had lost her lower left leg in the blast. Seven months later, at a TED talk Herr was giving, Haslet-Davis walked out on the stage with her partner and danced a rumba. “In 3.5 seconds, the criminals and cowards took Adrianne off the dance floor,” Herr said. “In 200 days, we put her back.”
At our next stop, the Personal Robotics Lab, Indian born researcher Palash Nandy tells us the key to his human friendly robots: their eyes. By manipulating a robot’s eyes and eyebrows, Nandy and his colleagues can make the robot appear sad, mad, confused, excited, attentive, or bored. Hospitals are beginning to deploy human friendly robots as helpmates to terminally ill kids. “Unlike the staff and other patients, who are constantly changing,” Nandy says, “the robot is always there for the child, asking him how he’s doing, which reduces stress.”
With the help of sophisticated sensors, the Personal Robotics Lab is building robots that are increasingly responsive to the emotional states of humans. Says Nandy: “Leo the Robot might not understand what you need or mean by the words you say, but he can pick up the emotional tone of your voice.” In a video he shows us, a researcher warns Leo, “Cookie Monster is bad. He wants to eat your cookies.” In response, Leo narrows his eyes, as if to say: “I get your message. I’ll keep my distance from that greedy Cookie Monster.”
Nandy also sings the praises of a robot who helps children learn French, and one that’s been programmed to help keep adults motivated as they lose weight.
My colleagues are full of questions and also objections:
“Can’t people do most of these tasks as well or better than the robots?”
“If every child grows up with their own personal robot friend, how will they ever learn to negotiate a real human relationship?”
“If you can create a robot friend, can’t you also create a robot torturer? Ever thought of that?”
“Yeah,” Nandy says, seeming to make light of the question. “But it’s hard to imagine evil robots when I’m around robots that say ‘I love you’ all day long.”
As awestruck and exhilarated as we are by what we see, my colleagues and I are getting frustrated by the long pauses and glib answers that greet so many of our concerns about the long-term impact of the technologies being developed here on the job market, human relationships, and our political rights and freedoms. As they invent the future, are these brilliant and passionate innovators alert to the societal risks and ramifications of what they’re doing?
On our way into the Mediated Matter Lab, we encounter a chaise lounge and a grouping of truly stunning bowls and sculptures that have been created using 3D printers. Markus Kayser, our guide through the Mediated Matter Lab, is a thirty one year old grad student from northern Germany. A few years ago he received considerable acclaim and media attention for a device he created called the Sun Sinter.
Kayser shows us a video of a bearded hipster, himself, carrying a metallic suitcase over a sand dune in Egypt’s Saharan Desert. It’s like a scene in a Buster Keaton movie. He stops and pulls several photovoltaic batteries and four large lenses from the suitcase. Then he focuses the lenses, at a heat of 1,600 degrees centigrade, onto a bed of sand. Within seconds, the concentrated heat of the sun has melted the sand and transformed it into glass. What happens next on the video gives us a glimpse into the future of manufacturing. Kayser takes his laptop out of the suitcase and spends a few minutes designing a bowl on the computer. Then, with a makeshift 3D printer powered by solar energy, he prints out the bowl in layers of plywood. He places the plywood prototype of the bowl on a small patch of desert. Then he focuses the lenses of the battery charged Solar Sinter on the sand. And then, layer after layer, he melts the sand into glass until he’s manufactured a glass bowl out of the desert’s abundant supplies of sun and sand.
“My whole goal is to explore hybrid solutions that link technology and natural energy to test new scenarios for production,” Kayser tells us. But the glass bowl only hints at the possibilities. Engineers from NASA and the US Army have already talked to him about the potential of using his technology to build emergency shelters after hurricanes and housing in hazardous environments, for example, in the desert regions of Iran and Iraq.
“How about detention centers for alleged terrorists?” one of my colleagues asks slyly. “I bet the Army is licking its chops to build a glass Guantanamo in the desert only miles from the Syrian border.”
Another asks: “Has anyone talked to you about using this technology to create urban housing for the poor?”
Kayser pauses before shaking his head no. The questions that consume our group most, how can we use this powerful technology for good rather than evil and to remedy the world’s inequities and suffering, do not seem of consequence to Kayser. This is by design: the Media Lab encourages the researchers to follow the technology wherever it leads them, without the pressure of developing a big-bucks commercial product, or an application that will save the world. lf they focus on the end results and specific commercial and social outcomes, they will be less attuned to the technology, to the materials, and to nature itself, which would impede their creative process. I understand that perspective, but it also worries me.
As I watch Kayser and his Solar Sinter turn sand into glass, another image comes to mind: Nearly 4,700 years ago, in the same Egyptian desert where Kayser made his video, more than 30,000 slaves, some of them probably my ancestors, and citizen-volunteers spent seven years quarrying, cutting, and transporting thousands of tons of stone to create Pharaoh Khufu’s Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That’s a lot of labor compared with what it will take to build a modern day community of glass houses in the vicinity of the Pyramid, or in Palm Springs, using the next iteration of the Sun Sinter. I’m concerned about the Sun Sinter’s impact on construction jobs.
Employment issues are at best a distant concern for the wizards who are inventing the future. Press them and they’ll say that technological disruption always produces new jobs and industries: Isn’t that what happened after Gutenberg invented the printing press and Ford automated the assembly line?
It was. But, as I reflect on this day, I remember a conversation I had with Steven Berkenfeld, an investment banker at Barclay’s Capital. Berkenfeld has a unique and important perspective on the relationship between technology and jobs. Day in, day out, he is pitched proposals by entrepreneurs looking to take their companies public. Most of the companies are developing technologies that will help businesses become more productive and efficient. That means fewer and fewer workers, according to Berkenfeld.
“Every company is trying to do more with less,” he explained. “Industry by industry, and sector by sector, every company is looking to drive out labor.” And very few policy makers are aware of the repercussions. “They convince themselves that technology will create new jobs when, in fact, it will displace them by the millions, spreading pain and suffering throughout the country.
When you look at the future from that perspective, the single most important decisions we need to make are: How do we help people continue to make a living, and how do we keep them engaged?”
At the end of our visit to the Media Lab, my job, as convener of the group, is to summarize some of the day’s lessons. I begin with an observation: “It’s amazing how the only thing that doesn’t work here is when these genius researchers try to project their PowerPoints onto the screen.” The twenty or so people who remain in our group laugh knowingly. Just like us, the wizards at MIT can’t seem to present a PowerPoint without encountering an embarrassing technological glitch.
I continue by quoting a line from a song by Buffalo Springfield, the 1960s American-Canadian rock band: “There’s something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
That’s how I feel about our day at MIT; it has given us a preview of the future of work, which will be amazing if we can grapple with the critical ethical and social justice questions it elicits. “I’ve spent my whole life in the labor movement chasing the future,” I tell my colleagues. “Now I’d like to catch up to it, or maybe even jump ahead of it, so I can see the future coming toward me.”
Toward that end, I ask everyone in the group to answer “yes,” “no,” or “abstain” to two hypotheses.
Hypothesis number one: “The role of technology in the future of work will be so significant that current conceptions of a job may no longer reflect the relationship to work for most people. Even the idea of jobs as the best and most stable source of income will come into question.”
Hypothesis number two: “The very real prospect in the United States is that twenty years from now most people will not receive a singular income from a single employer in a traditional employee-employer relationship. For some, such as those with substantial education, this might mean freedom. For others, those with a substandard education and a criminal record, the resulting structural inequality will likely increase vulnerability.”
There are a number of groans (“Jesus, Andy, can you get any more long-winded or rhetorical?”) but each member of the group writes their answers on a piece of paper, which I collect and tally. The first hypothesis gets eighteen yeses and two abstentions. The second gets sixteen yeses, three noes, and one abstention.
I am genuinely surprised by these results. Six months ago, at our last meeting of the OSF Future of Work inquiry, my colleagues had a much more varied response to these hypotheses. At least half of them did not agree with my premise that technology would have a disruptive impact on jobs, the workplace, and employer-employee relationships, and some of them disputed the premise quite angrily. (“What do you think we are, Andy-psychics?”) Today’s tally reflects their acknowledgment that something is happening at MIT and across the United States that will fundamentally change the way Americans live and work, what it is ain’t exactly clear, but it merits our serious and immediate attention.
As they go about inventing the future, the scientists and researchers at the Media Lab aren’t thinking about the consequences of their work on the millions of Americans who are laboring in factories, building our homes, guarding our streets, investing our money, computing our taxes, teaching our children and teenagers, staffing our hospitals, driving our buses, and taking care of our elders and disabled veterans.
They aren’t thinking about the millions of parents who scrimped and saved to send their kids to college, because our country told them that college was the gateway to success, only to see those same kids underemployed or jobless when they graduate and move back home.
They aren’t thinking about the dwindling fortunes of the millions of middle class Americans who spent the money they earned on products and services that made our nation’s economy and lifestyle the envy of the world.
They aren’t thinking about the forty-seven million Americans who live in poverty, including a fifth of the nation’s children.
Nor should they. That is my job, our job together, and the purpose of this book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason I am at the MIT Media Lab stems from a combination of personal and professional factors in what seemed to many to be my abrupt decision to step down as head of America’s most successful union, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. To better understand where I am coming from and going with this book you need to understand my personal journey.
Raising the Floor. How a Universal Basic Income can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
by Andy Stern
get it at Amazon.com