Virtual Jobs for Virtual People

Post by Jalmari Ikävalko

As automation, digitalization and globalization (just imagine all the cute abbreviations and nicknames we could come up with here..) continue to hog up human jobs, one can but wonder what the logical conclusion of the whole process will be. Will humans wind up in a work-free utopia? Or will it rather be a dystopia, where the unemployed 90% is all but doomed to poverty and blight?

Or.. Will we just continue figuring out work-like things for everyone to keep doin'?

One common proposition is that jobs with high technological skill demand will have the most stability. Programmers, data analysts, researchers, are assumed to have the most protection as automation keeps inevitably creeping in. While this might indeed be so in the short-term - talking of the next say, 20 years - I think there's underappreciation for how much of that specialized work can also be automated and there's overestimation for how many people can be employed. As we start to really take AI-powered tools into use - and I'm not talking about simple AI aids such as linters or regression tools you still configure yourself and feed data to yourself - programming or data analysis has no special protection from becoming just as automated as any other job. Perhaps, for some decades after that point, there's still a demand for the highly specialized people with deep understanding of the AI tools, but this will be a very small part of the total population. And even now, we can't just go telling people who lost their job at the warehouses to go become a data analyst or a game programmer or whatever.

So. Aside of high skill jobs, what else is there that's going to be keeping people busy with all those warehouse and cashier and truck driver jobs going out the window?

It is, of course, entertainment! Throughout the Western countries, entertainment (including various recreation services, amusement parks, arts, movies, et cetera - the full galore) generally keeps keeping up with employment growth rates at above the national averages 1 2. In itself, this is of course not very telling - maybe it'll hit a cap soon, maybe entertainment too will become automated, maybe we'll all die in nuclear arm-.. Oops, wrong blog post.

The idea I've liked to sport is that even as we virtualize our life and automate our jobs, as long as we don't have a general AI and can distinguish between human and AI service, there'll be a demand for humans, if only as sources of entertainment and socialization.

The fun bit is how this could manifest in practice. Being paid for playing video games at a large scale might be one. Paying not just esports and Twitch stars, but ordinary normal people.

Some games, in a struggle to hook up enough players to keep the world immersive and to keep attracting even more players, already reward players with virtual stuff that does have a monetary value. You can spend hours grinding for stuff in many MMORPGs and then find ways to sell it for real actual money. As is, this is usually discouraged and forbidden by companies, but it definitely happens. Even if the value of the resources and items you got in the game could not be translated into real-world money, the items still have value in the game world itself. That value allows you to do more challenging and difficult things in the game.

Let's jump a little further. Instead of using your time to get stuff to be able to access more of the content of the game, you use your time to entertain other players to be able to experience more of the game. Let's say - you have a shooter game, and you want all paying customers to get some kills, and you want the game to really feel like a proper immersive warzone. So you create these weaker characters, who can be one-shot killed by the stronger characters. These weaker toons die in masses, but you still want to see them as being very human-like. Players who volunteer to play these weaker toons might get in-game money that they can use to buy time to play stronger characters. They wont get much any kills or anything, but they keep other players entertained.

Or you have a RPG and you want it to have a human-played bartender who hands out quests and spreads rumors and throws the occasional joke. So you get a real person to play it. By playing the bartender, they earn virtual money that they can use to buy adventurer playtime. Play a bartender for a few hours, get to play knight.

As the game market becomes more and more saturated, as our lives become more virtualized and as media services keep competing for users, it's not that hard to imagine a leap where these companies and games and services literally start paying real world money to their users. You pay users to fill the more mundane parts of your product. You employ a real human as a virtual bartender to keep entertaining your paying customers.

The irony, of course, is in that you pay people to play your game so that they can then buy more playtime for your game. But then.. There already are many to whom that might not be so different from now.