Tag Archives: Purpose

The robots are coming. What purpose do we have left?

A life without purpose is no life all.

Our purpose – a key element of a happy and fulfilling life – could be radically overturned by the rise of robots. Automation and artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are threatening work and the economy as we know it. With that, even our happiness levels could be at risk.

The robots are coming

A seminal study on the future of employment by Frey and Osborne of 2013 put the figure of US jobs that could be automated by the early 2030s at around 47%. Imagining that about 1 in 2 employees lose their jobs is massive, but it is an average. For some sectors, like truck drivers or cab drivers, the figures are 70% or higher. If self-driving cars deliver on their promise, they will drastically reduce, or even eliminate, deathly car accidents. They will also radically cut employment in a sector that now represents about 3% of the US economy, and offers people with low education access to a middle-class lifestyle.

The gastronomy sector is another example. In a few years, you can order your pizza capricciosa online, and have it delivered home without any human intervention (we’re already almost there, though we still need a few humans). The dough could be prepared by one robot, the stuffing and sauces by a second, a third could bake it, and it could be delivered to your doorstep by driverless vehicle. Hygiene and efficiency would increase. For a capitalist, it is great: robots can work 24/7, without asking a salary, requesting additional training, getting bored, or going on strike.

White collar jobs are also at risk

But it’s not only blue collar jobs that can lose out. Also part of complicated jobs, like lawyers, accountants or radiologists can be automated. Again, their performance can be better than of humans. A well-programmed (or ‘trained’, through machine learning), robot accountant does not make the mistakes a human makes. A robot radiologist sees more cases during its training that a human during their entire career, and scores better in its diagnoses. These are just some examples: robots might also threaten your job, because humans can be beaten in every repetitive task.

Dramatic social effects

All these developments have massive social and economic effects. If robots take over so much of the current work, what will we do? Can we create new jobs for the 47%? Or will only be half the population be able to be employed? The demand-and-supply laws would posit that salaries would go down. Only those who control robots, the new means of production, would earn good salaries. Inequality would massively increase. This development is already visible in places like San Francisco. A four-person family with an income below $105,00o is now considered poor.

Maybe the entire economy would collapse. If only few people work and earn salaries, who can afford to consume of all products and services that robots produce? Henry Ford’s production line only started to take off when he realised that he needed to pay his staff enough to buy his T-Fords. Supply is nowhere without demand.

A new social contract?

Many in the tech industry, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg spoke out on basic income as a tool to protect those who lose out. In an interview last year, Bill Gates advocated a robot tax: “The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory has his income taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. Policy makers, such as San Francisco counsellor Jane Kim, have started to think what it could look like. Basic income might be part of the new social contract in a robot-driven economy – who knows?

What is our purpose?

At the moment, we have many more questions than answers. We know robots can do many parts of our jobs, and that some sectors are destined for radical transformation. But we don’t know what comes next. When coal mines in Western countries were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody could tell coal miners not to worry – we didn’t know yet that their children and grand-children could make a living as social media managers or YouTubers.

Similarly, the jobs that will be needed in the 2030s may not exist yet. At the same time, there are a few things that can give us hope. Coding is safe – robots cannot programme themselves (yet?). Social skills and social relations will remain important. And while robots are great in performing repetitive actions in situations they have seen before, they cannot (yet?) deal with completely new situations and decide what to do.

So, there are at least two avenues to find our purpose: one is to do the non-routine, creative work that is hard to automate (some creativity can be automated though – robots can create music and paintings). Another thing we can imagine is living the life as in Keynes vision – with a 15 hour working week, we can spend so much more time on holidays. There are a few big ifs – firstly, we need to have a new social contracts that allows it. Secondly, we  need to find a raison d’etre, a purpose outside work.

We should hurry to do so. The 2030s are close.

Mojitos, Lego and Beyond: Work and Motivation

Is there more to work than a means to pay for your mojitos?

Post-modern times require us to have complex skills in order to do our jobs well. This also influences how we feel about work in general: it is not just about making a living but also a way of self-realisation and a potential source to bring flow, meaning and happiness to our lives. TED speakers Dan Ariely and Dan Pink share their thoughts with us on the question: what motivates us to work?

Work and motivation

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is a behavioural psychologist who is on his way to becoming a TED star. His talks on irrationality, loss aversion and dishonesty have been watched by millions. Two years ago, in 2012, he was a TEDxAmsterdam guest in De Stadsschouwburg.

This time, he chose a different topic: work and motivation. Ariely discards the simple theory that most people only work in order to spend their money on mojitos while sitting on a beach. Beyond mojitos, what motivates people to care about their jobs? According to Ariely, meaning and creation are the main motivators.


Ariely tells us the story of one of his former students who used to work for an investment bank. For weeks and weeks he worked on a presentation for an important business deal. He worked overtime, did the research and put together a slick powerpoint presentation. He delivered a stellar job and received the well-earned appreciation by his boss he was looking for. Then, things changed: he learnt that the deal was off and that the presentation wouldn’t be used after all. This news was such a disappointment to him that it took away all of his motivation to work (even though his work was beyond his boss’s expectations). As a researcher, Ariely’s job is to translate similar anecdotes and theories into experiments. In this case, he came up with an experiment to test the effect of demotivation on performance. Being a Lego lover, he thought Lego robots would bring him closer to the answer.

Ariely paid two groups of research subjects to build bionicles – a type of Lego robot. The standard condition comprised of presenting the robots built by the first group. But in the ‘Sisyphic condition’, the robots were destroyed in the presence of the subjects just after they finished building them. The result: any motivation to build the robots was crushed. Even those who stated they loved Lego, actually built very few of them.

The IKEA effect

It is not surprising that meaning and purpose are an important part of our motivation at work. Creating something that is yours is another source of motivation. Or in Ariely’s words: the IKEA effect. If you spend a number of hours assembling your own IKEA furniture, it’s very likely that you will be more attached to it: labour leads to appreciation. Children are another example. You may experience other people’s children as horrible creatures. But when they’re yours, you have already invested so much time and energy that they have become valuable to you. Ariely informs us that this effect has also been studied in experiments involving origami figures made by the subjects themselves.

Dan Pink

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has formulated his own answer to the question of motivation. He argues that in the current business climate, staff management is no longer suitable for the 21st century employee. Our jobs today require a specific set of skills. We do not live in a time anymore where a task is simply being executed as ordered. As the content of our jobs has changed over time, our management has to change, too.

Engagement can be reached with the help of three factors, says Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We have the urge to be the director of our own lives, both in our private lives as well as in our jobs. We want to become increasingly better at what we do and we yearn to be part of something more meaningful, something larger than ourselves.

Thus, Dan Pink argues, our working cultures should be redesigned. We should build more (software) companies like Atlassian, where people have ‘Fedex days’, giving them 24 hour to solve a problem posed by themselves. Or, we should learn from radical reformers like Google, where engineers can spend 20% of their working time on projects they believe are important. Or we can work via the ‘ROWE’ (Results Only Work Environment) eliminating fixed working hours and meetings.

Challenge is what drives motivation. And companies can do so much more to create that challenge.

This article was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’. In this series, I explore some of the about fifty talks on happiness in TED’s library.

With great thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.