Rebecca, my co-author on Having Children: A Dialogue, recently published a blog with the following two paragraphs as an introduction.
About three months ago, Kyle and I wrote and self-published a Kindle e-book called Having Children: A Dialogue. Since we find great value in freely sharing ideas, we also made the full text available on each of our blogs, which you can see here and here. The dialogue elicited a lot of discussion among our friends, both in person and on Facebook.
I think she’s wrong. Here’s why.
First, we need to be clear that I will be making a moral argument against adoption based on an ethic of care and the belief that good behavior is an attempt to maximize well-being for as many as possible. If you disagree with those two claims, you will disagree with many of my conclusions. Rebecca and I operate from the same ethical framework and so this rebuttal is on those grounds.
In reading the initial draft of this response, Rebecca pointed out that it came across as self-righteous and when we look up the definition for that adjective we get, “believing that your ideas and behaviour are morally better than those of other people”. There will naturally be some truth to her impression because this entire discussion as I’ve framed it is a discussion on what ideas and behaviors are morally best. With that in mind, I will try not to be smug about it, which I think is closer to what her initial feeling of my tone was, and instead do my best to point out the conclusions that I think directly follow from the moral premises outlined above.
Adoption Isn’t a Special Case
It is the statement that adoption “needs to be talked about and celebrated” that I am reacting to here. Is this on the basis of its self-interestedness or its altruism? I assume the latter and so we have to ask just how effective it is as a form of altruism relative to the many choices we have and if it is less effective, what costs does that imply, and is the result still worth celebrating?
When thinking about actions for impact regarding making the world better, adoption falls among the many options available and isn’t a special or unique one. We can still ask the question, “Will this maximize the good I am doing in the world or not, given the resources I have?”
Of course, adopting is not always about doing the most good and we did touch on reasons for having children that fall outside that decision point in Having Children. However, once we move away from thinking about the most good we can do in terms of well-being and suffering, we are moving away from discussions on morality and into discussions about self-interested action.
The organization 80,000 Hours does a great job on deciding how to find the world’s most pressing problems.
They recommend using a three pronged approach that considers problems that are big in scale, neglected, and solvable. Adoption is definitely solvable, but does not count as big in scale (think human extinction due to climate change) or neglected (everyone knows of adoption as a viable choice to help others). This can be easier to see with the diagram 80,000 Hours included in the article linked above, copied immediately below for convenience:
In the case of adoption, lots of effort and attention has already been paid to it, so it exists in the upper right part of the curve in the diagram above. In technical terms, it has low impact at the margin. As an additional person supporting adoption, your effort has far less impact than some type of action where you are starting at the bottom left corner of the curve near the origin where the impact at the margin is very high.
This would be entirely different if adoption were a neglected cause. If everyone decided adoption was not effective enough in terms of impact per unit of effort, we would find adoption down in the left hand corner of the curve and a great example of “low hanging fruit” in terms of impact, i.e. something that is high impact because it is both solvable and neglected and therefore is easy to get high marginal benefit by undertaking it. That just doesn’t happen to be the case for adoption at this moment in time.
Putting It More Humanely
The major problem with talking about adoption in these terms is that it comes across as inhumane or out of touch with human empathy and compassion. Since that tends to be the case, it’s probably more effective to put it in a different perspective.
If you had to make a choice between saving 50 to 117 lives or just one, what would you decide?
I assume that most normally adjusted and moral people concerned with doing the most good would decide on the first route - saving 50 to 117 lives instead of one.
That is roughly the decision I am making and arguing everyone should be making when thinking about adopting. The opportunity costs are simply too high for adoption. Let’s now analyze why this is true.
According to the USDA who released an annual report in August 2014, below are the expenditures on children by families:
So the range of expenditures on a child in the United States is from $176,550 up to $407,820 depending on parental income. Obviously, these are averages and individual parent expenditures will vary. I assume a morally aware parent like Rebecca is likely to spend much less, but all else being equal, it’s a good place to start.
The most cost effective charities in the world are currently able to save lives for roughly $3,500 each. If we divide the low range estimate of $176,500 by $3,500, we get 50 lives saved for the equivalent cost of raising one child to 18 years old in the United States. If we use the high end of the range estimated at $407,820 and divide by $3,500, we get 117 potential lives saved by opting not to adopt and instead donating to the most effective charities in the world.
I realize the problems with these estimates, but there are two additional points to keep in mind. We are finding better, more effective causes each day, as research into effective giving is still in its infancy. This means the cost of saving an additional life is likely to come down. Furthermore, the costs of child raising do not include the costs of adoption, which are still relatively high and make the expenditure values for raising an adopted child even higher than the range estimated above.
Those two factors combined result in even larger numbers of potential lives saved by choosing to donate over adopting, as the costs of children inflate due to adoption and the cost of saving lives comes down due to future learning.
At the end of the day, this entire issue has much more to do with self-interested action versus altruism and moral “do-gooding” than it does with number crunching. If having a child makes your life complete, and adopting is your preferred method of doing that, by all means do it.
If you adopting because you believe it is the best way to make the world better off, or even a fairly decent way to make the world better off, realize that is not really the case.
There is a rather famous thought experiment within the field of moral philosophy known as the “trolley problem”:
The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?
Adoption is currently a real life example of this thought experiment in action, except instead of saving five people and killing one person, your choice can potentially save over 100 people while not necessarily killing anyone (the potentially adopted child can still be adopted by someone else or live a less enjoyable life in state or foster care).
I don’t dislike adoption because I hate children or am apathetic to their suffering. It’s the exact opposite. I don’t like adoption because I see those 100 faces suffering and dying from preventable causes each time I picture it. Adoption is a decision that forces you to allocate resources to a single child for the life of that child. Ultimately those resources could have been spent elsewhere with greater impact and so adoption is equivalent to poor resource allocation when thought about morally.
With all of this in mind, the decision to adopt should be thought about relative to your own interests and not as a decision regarding the greater good. After all, the greater good would urge you not to adopt at all, but instead use those resources to take action in higher impact areas.
The highest returns on energy invested to address problems appear to be:
Below is much of the evidence used in making the recommendations in the executive summary above. It is largely curated information and not at all my own work. I have simply taken from what I believe to be the best sources on this topic: the UN, the Copenhagen Consensus, and the effective altruist community (mainly 80,000 Hours in this case). I have included hyperlinks wherever necessary and possible, but for the sake of ease of reading, have refrained from using extensive use of quotation marks and other textual “noise”. I will put my own words in italics from here on.
We’ll first take a look at the recently released Sustainable Development Goals from the UN, which are a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals that ran from 2000 to 2015.
From the UN Sustainable Development Goals
On September 25th 2015, countries adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.
For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you.
Do you want to get involved? You can start by telling everyone about them. We’ve also put together a list of actions that you can take in your everyday life to contribute to a sustainable future.
Below are the goals, artificially divided into three categories related to people, planet, and prosperity for the sake of understanding the focus of each goal. Several overlap and many can be achieved through increased prosperity alone.
Next, we will take a look at the Copenhagen Consensus’ attempt to prioritize the above goals and resulting targets in terms of impact per dollar spent.
Nobel Laureates Guide to Smarter Global Targets to 2030
The 17 goals above are operationalized into 169 measurable targets in an attempt to see progress over the next 15 years. Upon announcing the 17 goals above, the Copenhagen Consensus immediately went to work trying to figure out which of the 169 targets would have the greatest impact.
Prioritizing 19 targets instead of the UN’s 169 targets is equivalent to doubling or quadrupling foreign aid.
Over the past 18 months, we (the Copenhagen Consensus) have published 100+ peer-reviewed analyses from 82 of the world’s top economists and 44 sector experts along with many UN agencies and NGOs. These have established how effective 100+ targets would be in terms of social value-for-money.
An Expert Panel including two Nobel Laureates has reviewed this research and identified 19 targets that represent the best value-for-money in development over the period 2016 to 2030, offering more than $15 back on every dollar invested. In a hurry? Download the graphic overview here.
Below are the 19 specific targets representing the best value-for-money from the original 169 targets operationalized to meet the 17 UN goals above.
Lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%
Halve malaria infection
Reduce tuberculosis deaths by 90%
Avoid 1.1 million HIV infections through circumcision
Cut early death from chronic diseases by 1/3
Reduce newborn mortality by 70%
Increase immunization to reduce child deaths by 25%
Make family planning available to everyone
Eliminate violence against women and girls
Phase out fossil fuel subsidies
Halve coral reef loss
Tax pollution damage from energy
Cut indoor air pollution by 20%
Reduce trade restrictions (full Doha)
Improve gender equality in ownership, business and politics
Boost agricultural yield increase by 40%
Increase girls’ education by 2 years
Achieve universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa
Triple preschool in sub-Saharan Africa
Reaching these global targets by 2030 will do more than $15 of good for every dollar spent.
“The expert analyses suggest that if the UN concentrates on 19 top targets, it can get $20 to $40 in social benefits per dollar spent, while allocating it evenly across all 169 targets would reduce the figure to less than $10. Being smart about spending could be better than doubling or quadrupling the aid budget” - Bjorn Lomborg.
Below is a table of the benefit per dollar spent on the top 14 targets from the UN Sustainable Development goals as analyzed by the Copenhagen Consensus. Of special note is the fact that investing in fewer trade restrictions is an order of magnitude more benefit per dollar spent than the second best return.
Table 1: List of the highest benefit/cost interventions
*The above is curated from The Nobel Laureates Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030 Kindle Edition - a product of the work done by the Copenhagen Consensus.
Beyond the UN and the analysis of their goals by the Copenhagen Consensus, the effective altruist community has also done extensive work attempting to figure out the most effective causes to support. Below is much of that work distilled by the organization 80,000 Hours, who in turn relies on several organizations itself.
80,000 Hours - What are the world’s biggest problems?
Which global problems are most important to work on? To answer, we’ve drawn together research from the Global Priorities Project (affiliated with Oxford University); the Open Philanthropy Project (a multi-billion dollar foundation); the Copenhagen Consensus Center (a major think tank); and other researchers.
We’re looking for the biggest problems in the world, but that isn’t enough for a problem to make it onto the list: it could be too hard to solve, or it could already receive a huge amount of attention. We’re looking for problems that are big and solvable and neglected (this is why). And this means our list is a bit different from what you might first expect.
Table 2: List of the world’s biggest problems
Click through to see our reasoning for each problem. If there’s no link, the profile isn’t yet complete, but will be published soon. This is a preliminary list, so the answers are likely to change. There’s also many pressing problems we didn’t yet investigate. One point higher means the problem is roughly three times as pressing.
Surprised at the list?
Learn more about how we compare problems in part 2b of our career guide. You can see our reasoning for each individual problem by clicking through to the full profile.
Potentially promising problems we haven’t yet investigated
And many others…
If you want to be notified when we do these profiles and update our list, join the newsletter.
Which problem should you work on?
Comparing global problems involves difficult judgement calls, so different people come to different conclusions. We made a quiz that filters our list based on your answers to some crucial questions.
TAKE THE QUIZ
Once you have a personalised list, the next thing to factor in is your personal fit. Different problems need different skills and resources, so some people are better placed to work on them. To learn more about what’s most needed in each problem, click through to read the full profile. If you’re early in your career, don’t feel too constrained by the skills you already have – you can build expertise where it’s most needed.
You might also be more passionate about some problems rather than others. If that’s the case, then factor it in – it’s probably better to work on a second tier problem that you’re super motivated by rather than a top tier one you’re not. Just don’t forget you can become motivated by new areas if you know that the work helps others and become good at what you do. If you’re unsure whether you’ll be motivated, try it out. (Read more about how to assess personal fit.)
The following will be entirely my words again and so I will discontinue the use of italics for my voice.
To my knowledge, the best quantitative data we have on effective interventions come from the Copenhagen Consensus. Table 1 above summarizes the top 14 interventions. The reason they don’t all make the top spots in my executive summary list that began this article is that not all of the interventions currently have effective organizations to implement them, and the organizations also tend to discount events that are qualitatively awful, but harder to quantitatively estimate - for example the existential threats from AI and climate change that make the top spots in the executive summary.
Furthermore, those numbers do not reflect the gains from promoting this prioritization process itself, which takes the second spot on the executive summary list because of how much more effective some actions are over others. See the example of taking action on trade restrictions versus tripling preschool in Sub-Saharan Africa in Table 1 as an example.
When we get down into the lower items, numbers four through six on the executive summary list, organizations like GiveWell become the best source for taking action through donations to support those causes. So while Table 1 above shows that malaria infections is the lowest return intervention among the possible health interventions listed, in actual decision making about where to donate funds, the organization Against Malaria is probably the best choice as it ranks highest amongst charitable organizations for effectiveness.
In theory it is better to donate to an organization that deals with contraception or aspirin heart attack therapy as the potential impact is higher, however, in reality we have more and better information about the positive effects of malaria prevention due to Against Malaria’s work than any organization dealing in those “more effective” interventions. Good charities - ones in which we are reasonably sure of high impact relative to other choices available - simply don’t exist to give money to in those causes.
Ideally, articles such as this one and the ever growing awareness of these issues will push better charities into existence so that money can be allocated to better causes (i.e. contraception, aspirin, etc.) in the developing world. In the future, it would be great if GiveWell’s top charity were dedicated to either trade reform or contraception; even getting a decent charity involved with immunization would be a win as that has higher expected returns than the currently top ranked charity dedicated to malaria and so would be more effective.
Finally, it is worth noting that while increased prosperity should be prioritized because of its potential to alleviate or eliminate many of these problems, education (learning more specifically) is the fundamental factor that drives the creativity and innovation needed to enhance prosperity and therefore appropriate government policies need to be offered and accepted to create a learning society. This means that public participation in elections and political willpower demonstrated through voting is arguably one of the highest impact activities any of us can engage in.
Only better, more relevant education can solve our pressing global problems. We need students, teachers, and all citizens of the world working, thinking, and creating solutions to these urgent issues.
Below is everything I’ve read this past week. The books may have been started in previous weeks, but were finished in the previous seven days. Most of my reading relates to education for sustainable development (Edu21).
Articles and Videos
Paul Collier in Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World writes:
I will refer to the combination of institutions, rules, norms, and organizations of a country as its social model. Even among high-income countries social models differ considerably. America has particularly strong institutions and private organizations, but somewhat weaker public organizations than Europe, and Japan has much stronger norms of trust than either of them. But though they differ in detail, all high-income societies have social models that function remarkably well. Quite possibly, different combinations work well because the components adapt so as to fit each other: for example, institutions and norms may gradually evolve so as to be well suited given the state of narratives and organizations. But such adaptation is not automatic. On the contrary, hundreds of different societies existed for thousands of years before any of them happened upon a social model capable of supporting the ascent to prosperity. Even the Glorious Revolution was not undertaken with the objective of unleashing prosperity: it was triggered by a mixture of religious prejudice and political opportunism. The English social model that emerged in the eighteenth century was replicated and improved in America. This in turn influenced social revolution in France, which exported its new institutions by force of arms across western Europe. The key point I wish to convey is that the present prosperity enjoyed in the Western world, and which is belatedly spreading more widely, is not the outcome of some inevitable march of progress. For thousands of years until the twentieth century ordinary people were poor, everywhere. A high living standard was the privilege of extractive elites rather than the normal reward for productive work. Had it not been for a fortuitous combination of circumstances that relatively recently produced a social model conducive to growth, this dreary state of affairs would most likely have continued. In poor countries it continues still.
If the prosperity of the high-income world rests on this platform, it has crucial implications for migration. Migrants are essentially escaping from countries with dysfunctional social models. It may be well to reread that last sentence and ponder its implications. For example, it might make you a little more wary of the well-intentioned mantra of the need to have “respect for other cultures.” The cultures— or norms and narratives— of poor societies, along with their institutions and organizations, stand suspected of being the primary cause of their poverty. Of course, on criteria other than whether they are conducive to prosperity these cultures may be the equal of, or superior to, the social models of high-income societies. They may be preferable in terms of dignity, humanity, artistic creativity, humor, honor, and virtue. But migrants themselves are voting with their feet in favor of the high-income social model. Recognizing that poor societies are economically dysfunctional is not a license for condescension toward their people: people can as readily earn the right to respect while struggling against a hostile environment as while succeeding in a benign one. But it should put us on our guard against the lazier assertions of multiculturalism: if a decent living standard is something to be valued, then on this criterion not all cultures are equal. (pp. 33-35)
Indeed. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of book, in which he attempts to examine both the economic and social costs and benefits of migration.
He has already stated that the effects of migration can be costly to both domestic workers in the nation of immigration and to the people left behind upon emigrating. Both of those ought to be balanced against the benefits to the nation of immigration as a whole and to the migrants themselves.
Furthermore, I don't think migration is an economic issue as such, but much more of a moral right to freedom of movement. He states in the introduction that he will address it as a human rights issue and that is what I'm most looking forward to.
A forthcoming article from titled The Perception of Atheists as Narcissistic finds:
Participants consistently rated atheists higher on narcissism measures and lower on empathy measures, indicating a perception of greater narcissism and a lack of empathy compared with religious individuals and controls. Participants’ perceptions of Alex were affected by his or her gender in conjunction with his or her religion, and the 2 variables of gender and religion interacted to create different patterns of perception. In general, interactions indicated differences in the way religion and gender impacted the perception of individuals as narcissistic, affecting perceptions of males more than females. The results are consistent with research findings that perceptions of atheists tend to be negative and prejudicial. This study highlights the need to compare perceptions with actual personality differences between atheists and religious individuals.
Being both male and an atheist, this naturally catches my eye and my thoughts and hypothesis will be accordingly biased, but here it goes anyway.
I would hypothesize that the perceived personality differences are clearly wrong and completely opposite to actual personality differences. Rather than male atheists being more narcissistic in general, I’d assume the reverse to be true - male atheists are in fact kinder and more altruistic on average.
Take just two studies that might provide some evidence in favor of this hypothesis (i.e. NOT fact, open to change): one on the topic of where kindness comes from published UC Berkeley’s Greater Good website and a meta-analysis that investigated the relation between intelligence and religiosity.
The first study states:
People who scored higher on a battery of cognitive, attention, and IQ tests also tended to be more genuinely kind—but no more, or less, likely to exhibit kindness based on strategic or norm-motivated concerns. Nor did they describe themselves as more kind. This challenges a popular assumption that greater intelligence is associated with more scrutinizing cost-benefit analysis or deliberation of fairness in decisions to be or not to be kind. People with lower intelligence scores were just as likely to take cost-benefit analysis, reciprocity, or reputation into consideration while being kind. Like low negativity, scoring higher in intelligence was linked to being kind just for the sake of kindness.
As might be predicted by common gender stereotypes, women scored higher in self-reported kindness. This sex difference, however, did not play out for genuinely kind behavior, which was actually more common in men.
These statements suggest that people with higher intelligence and people who are men are more likely to be genuinely kind. That’s one point for men, but what does this have to do with atheism?
As the second study mentioned above suggests, atheism and intelligence seem to be connected, at least through correlation:
A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity. The association was stronger for college students and the general population than for participants younger than college age; it was also stronger for religious beliefs than religious behavior.
That last bit is important, as it means that it is not the overt behavior that seems to matter, so much as the internal set of beliefs around atheism or religiosity.
Putting those two studies together, there would seem to be a minimum case to be made for making the hypothesis that perceptions of male atheist are off the mark, perhaps radically so, and that as the forthcoming article suggests the, “study highlights the need to compare perceptions with actual personality differences between atheists and religious individuals,” to figure out just how warranted these types of prejudices are or are not, statistically speaking of course.
In closing, one last item of interest in this discussion is an excerpt from Peter Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do where he writes:
The average IQ score is still 100, but that is only because IQ test scores are standardized to produce this result. The tests themselves are changed from time to time in order to bring the raw scores closer to the standardized scores. In every major industrialized nation, raw scores have risen by an average of about 3 points per decade. The phenomenon is known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn, who published papers on it in 1984 and 1987. It has been estimated that by today’s standards the average IQ in the United States in 1932 was only 80.
Several explanations have been put forward for this rise in IQ scores, ranging from better nutrition to a more stimulating environment that requires us to do more thinking. Better education may have played some part, but scores have risen most on those questions that test the ability to reason abstractly rather than on the sections that test vocabulary and math. Flynn later proposed that the spread throughout the population of scientific modes of reasoning about problems could contribute to an improvement in reasoning.
Steven Pinker believes that the improvement in our reasoning abilities may have begun when the development of the printing press spread ideas and information to a much larger proportion of the population. He argues that better reasoning had a positive moral impact too. We became better able to take an impartial stance and detach ourselves from our personal and parochial perspectives. Pinker calls this a “moral Flynn effect.” (p. 96)
Regardless of whether male atheists turn out to be statistically more kind or not (who really cares?), the above passage gives hope that in time we will all be more moral due to ever increasing average intelligence levels and better development outcomes resulting from increased nutrition, more stimulating environments, better education, and deeper understanding of genetics, epigenetics, and intrauterine development on our neurobiology, which in and of itself leads to more moral people due to larger neurological capacities to care, cooperate, and think of others.
From the article Rising Labor Costs Accounted for 47 percent of Increased Personal Health Care Spending in 2015:
According to PPI estimates, rising labor costs accounted for almost $65 billion in added health care costs in 2015, or 47 percent of the total increase in personal health care spending (as reported by the latest projections from the actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid). By contrast, IMS reports that net spending on prescription drugs rose by only $24 billion in 2015, or 18 percent of the rise in personal health care spending.
This result, which updates our previously published data for 2014, fights the prevailing narrative that healthcare spending is primarily driven by rising drug prices.
This, again, provides evidence for proper preventative health interventions. Diet and exercise for longevity being chief among them. Healthcare ought to be used for accidents and emergencies, not chronic disease and degeneration brought on by preventable causes requiring ever more nurses and healthcare personnel as we age.
I just finished one of the books on the Edu21 Syllabus. Below are some lengthy excerpts with the most important pieces for education bolded. Just more evidence for why education needs to change now, in a big way, and not in some more distant future in a small way. All of it points to cooperative, product-oriented learning that aims to creatively solve authentic complex problems.
Klaus Schwab, in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, writes:
The first industrial revolution spanned from about 1760 to around 1840. Triggered by the construction of railroads and the invention of the steam engine, it ushered in mechanical production. The second industrial revolution, which started in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, made mass production possible, fostered by the advent of electricity and the assembly line. The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s. It is usually called the computer or digital revolution because it was catalysed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing (1960s), personal computing (1970s and 80s) and the internet (1990s).
Mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, I believe that today we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Digital technologies that have computer hardware, software and networks at their core are not new, but in a break with the third industrial revolution, they are becoming more sophisticated and integrated and are, as a result, transforming societies and the global economy. This is the reason why Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have famously referred to this period as “the second machine age”, the title of their 2014 book, stating that the world is at an inflection point where the effect of these digital technologies will manifest with “full force” through automation and and the making of “unprecedented things”. (Kindle Locations 113-127).
As a result, the great beneficiaries of the fourth industrial revolution are the providers of intellectual or physical capital – the innovators, the investors, and the shareholders, which explains the rising gap in wealth between those who depend on their labour and those who own capital. It also accounts for the disillusionment among so many workers, convinced that their real income may not increase over their lifetime and that their children may not have a better life than theirs. (Kindle Locations 203-206).
So far, the evidence is this: The fourth industrial revolution seems to be creating fewer jobs in new industries than previous revolutions. According to an estimate from the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, only 0.5% of the US workforce is employed in industries that did not exist at the turn of the century, a far lower percentage than the approximately 8% of new jobs created in new industries during the 1980s and the 4.5% of new jobs created during the 1990s. This is corroborated by a recent US Economic Census, which sheds some interesting light on the relationship between technology and unemployment. It shows that innovations in information and other disruptive technologies tend to raise productivity by replacing existing workers, rather than creating new products needing more labour to produce them.
Two researchers from the Oxford Martin School, economist Carl Benedikt Frey and machine learning expert Michael Osborne, have quantified the potential effect of technological innovation on unemployment by ranking 702 different professions according to their probability of being automated, from the least susceptible to the risk of automation (“ 0” corresponding to no risk at all) to those that are the most susceptible to the risk (“ 1” corresponding to a certain risk of the job being replaced by a computer of some sort).
This research concludes that about 47% of total employment in the US is at risk, perhaps over the next decade or two, characterized by a much broader scope of job destruction at a much faster pace than labour market shifts experienced in previous industrial revolutions. In addition, the trend is towards greater polarization in the labour market. Employment will grow in high-income cognitive and creative jobs and low-income manual occupations, but it will greatly diminish for middle-income routine and repetitive jobs. (Kindle Locations 534-549).
In the foreseeable future, low-risk jobs in terms of automation will be those that require social and creative skills; in particular, decision-making under uncertainty and the development of novel ideas.
This, however, may not last. Consider one of the most creative professions – writing – and the advent of automated narrative generation. Sophisticated algorithms can create narratives in any style appropriate to a particular audience. The content is so human-sounding that a recent quiz by The New York Times showed that when reading two similar pieces, it is impossible to tell which one has been written by a human writer and which one is the product of a robot. The technology is progressing so fast that Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, a company specializing in automated narrative generation, forecasts that by the mid-2020s, 90% of news could be generated by an algorithm, most of it without any kind of human intervention (apart from the design of the algorithm, of course).
In such a rapidly evolving working environment, the ability to anticipate future employment trends and needs in terms of the knowledge and skills required to adapt becomes even more critical for all stakeholders. These trends vary by industry and geography, and so it is important to understand the industry and country-specific outcomes of the fourth industrial revolution.
In the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, we asked the chief human resources officers of today’s largest employers in 10 industries and 15 economies to imagine the impact on employment, jobs and skills up to the year 2020. Survey respondents believe that complex problem solving, social and systems skills will be far more in demand in 2020 when compared to physical abilities or content skills. The report finds that the next five years are a critical period of transition: the overall employment outlook is flat but there is significant job churn within industries and skill churn within most occupations. While wages and work-life balance are expected to improve slightly for most occupations, job security is expected to worsen in half of the industries surveyed. It is also clear that women and men will be affected differently, potentially exacerbating gender inequality. (Kindle Locations 564-581).
Effects on inequality are then described:
The discussion on economic and business impacts highlighted a number of different structural shifts which have contributed to rising inequality to date, and which may be further exacerbated as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds. Robots and algorithms increasingly substitute capital for labour, while investing (or more precisely, building a business in the digital economy) becomes less capital intensive. Labour markets, meanwhile, are becoming biased towards a limited range of technical skill sets, and globally connected digital platforms and marketplaces are granting outsized rewards to a small number of “stars”. As all these trends happen, the winners will be those who are able to participate fully in innovation-driven ecosystems by providing new ideas, business models, products and services, rather than those who can offer only low-skilled labour or ordinary capital.
These dynamics are why technology is regarded as one of the main reasons incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries. Today, the world is very unequal indeed. According to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2015, half of all assets around the world are now controlled by the richest 1% of the global population, while “the lower half of the global population collectively own less than 1% of global wealth”. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that the average income of the richest 10% of the population in OECD countries is approximately nine times that of the poorest 10%. Further, inequality within most countries is rising, even in those that have experienced rapid growth across all income groups and dramatic drops in the number of people living in poverty. China’s Gini Index, for example, rose from approximately 30 in the 1980s to over 45 by 2010. (Kindle Locations 1328-1342).
He ends with:
This will clearly require systemic innovation and not small-scale adjustments or reforms at the margin.
We cannot get there without ongoing cooperation and dialogue - at local, national and supra-national levels, with all interested parties having a voice. We need to focus on getting the underlying conditions right, and not just concentrate on the technical aspects. As the evolutionist Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University, reminds us, cooperation is “the only thing that will redeem mankind.” As the principal architect of four billion years of evolution, cooperation has been a driving force because it enables us to adapt amid increasing complexity and strengthens political, economic and social cohesion through which substantial progress is achieved.
With effective multistakeholder cooperation, I am convinced that the fourth industrial revolution has the potential to address – and possibly solve – the major challenges that the world currently faces.
In the end, it comes down to people, culture and values. Indeed, we need to work very hard to ensure that all citizens across cultures, nations and income groups understand the need to master the fourth industrial revolution and its civilizational challenges.
Let us together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.
Let us therefore take collective responsibility for a future where innovation and technology are centred on humanity and the need to serve the public interest, and ensure that we employ them to drive us all towards more sustainable development. (Kindle Locations 1626-1641).
Edu21 is about using education to address the biggest challenges in the world today by educating students on sustainable development. It hopes to engender values of social inclusion, economic development, and environmental sustainability so that everyone can share in higher levels of quality of life, both today and in the future.
That entails first identifying and prioritizing the biggest challenges. The largest problems in the world comprise threats from machine learning and artificial intelligence, climate change, biosecurity, nuclear security, poverty, inequality, ageing, and restrictions on migration and trade.
To understand these problems in the present, the future, and the implications for education, the list of 57 books below was compiled to form a “syllabus” on understanding the most pressing global issues and what to do about them. The Short List of five books is intended as an efficient “crash course” foundation for thinking about these issues by considering the present and future, as well as educational implications. The Long List comprises 52 books, one for each week of the year, with the goal of more deeply and thoroughly exploring these three topics.
Many of the problems are potentially solved or alleviated by machine learning, automation, and the development of artificial intelligence in the coming years. However, those solutions also pose some of humanity’s largest concerns: existential threat from a hostile AI system and large-scale unemployment from job loss due to automation without proper redistribution of the net gains.
Even without any further breakthroughs in machine learning, many of the problems could be vastly ameliorated by opening up migration and trade restrictions further, thereby doubling or tripling world GDP. As long as this is done in a sensible manner that accounts for changes in population equilibriums and redistributes the gains to compensate losers, everyone in the world is potentially better off.
In fact, both machine learning and migration result in the same situation - vast increases in wealth with large groups of people out of work or underemployed as the result of cheaper substitutions in either capital or labor. While these are the two areas with the largest potential for increased living standards, they also require nations striking a very delicate balance so that civil strife does not break out from increased pockets of intense suffering amongst specific populations.
All of this implies radically reorienting education systems to focus on innovation and compassion. Creativity, innovation, and learning are the central drivers of increased living standards and compassion is the central driver ensuring all share in the benefits.
Note: The lists are ordered by number of Amazon reviews (the number to the right of each title). I find this to be one of the simplest proxies for readability and engaging writing. Bolded titles are ones that I have yet to read or am in the process of reading, but am reasonably sure will be well worth the read due to author credentials, reviews, and topic. All the books are written by experts in their fields, the majority by PhDs who have spent their careers studying these topics. Many have worked with the UN and other international organizations. The list is open to change as my knowledge changes, either from more reading or input from all of you.
The Short List (To Get Started)
Understanding the Present
Understanding the Future
Implications for Education
The Long List (One for Each Week of a Year)
Understanding the Present
Understanding the Future
Implications for Education