Could Gamification Contribute to Technological Unemployment?


The goal of gamification is to make a non-game task more engaging by introducing game-like elements. Gamification is still a new field but it has had some key successes, such as Foldit.

How could gamification contribute to technological unemployment? Well if you can make certain jobs fun and game-like enough, then people on the internet might do them for free. Or at least for far lower pay.

Imagine a company that is trying to keep costs low. First they might automate as many of their tasks as possible. Then they could take the few remaining tasks that still require human intelligence and gamify them. The company gets free or cheap labor, and people on the internet get to play a fun game. Everybody wins… except for the people who are now out of a job.

It remains to be seen whether gamification can be pushed this far, but I suspect it could. I imagine with the right designer you could turn almost any boring information task into a “game” that some people on the internet might obsess over and play for free.

Is the US Close to Maxed Out on Education?

Mark Lewis writes:

“In 1930, there was a lot of potential in the US public for improving skills through education. Most people were undereducated. They hadn’t reached their potential because they didn’t need to and were advised against it. Somewhere around the 1950s, kids were being told that they really needed to graduate from High School to find jobs. By the 1980s, you needed to go to college to get a good job. By 2000, college wasn’t seen as the key to the good jobs, it was the key to almost every job. We had moved into the information age and High School counselors were telling students that if they didn’t get some college they were doomed to lower-end jobs.

“One result of this is that the US is probably close to maxed out on education. There are inevitably some things that can happen to help certain students go further. There are definitely things that can be done to make the whole process more efficient. However, I don’t think this is an area of huge untapped potential. I don’t see any technology that is going to take current High School dropouts and turn them into Ph.D.s in STEM fields…

“I think the stories from the Occupy movement of people who had degrees and couldn’t find jobs are a parallel to the kid in the 1920s who was told to drop out of school and start working the farm. While it is easy to take a condescending view of the 20-somethings who racked up a whole bunch of debt majoring in some field from the Humanities and can’t find a job today, doing so is not only non-productive, it really isn’t fair. Those kids grew up being told that they should get a college degree in something they loved and that would get them a job. That advice has worked for decades. The people giving the advice didn’t lie, they simply didn’t have 20/20 foresight into the future. (Something it is impossible to blame people for.)

“There is a difference between today’s Occupiers and the unemployed farm hand of 1930 though, the unemployed farm hand had a lot of untapped potential when it came to education. The youth of today typically don’t. Yes, they could go learn something different to give them more desirable skills, but I fear that doesn’t scale the same way. Plus, many of these people chose the direction they went because they found that those other areas (which might be better for jobs) didn’t work well for them.”  (link)

I mostly agree with the basic premise here. The only clarification I would add is the limiting factor may not be people’s intellectual capability but their interest and ambition. I actually have a lot of faith in people’s potential when properly educated. But harnessing one’s potential requires willpower and drive that may be in short supply.

In other words, there are probably lots of people who intellectually speaking could become STEM field Ph.D.s but never will, because they lack the desire to follow through with such a field of study. So the next educational challenges will not only be about transferring knowledge, but also about finding new ways to incentivize people and make the learning process fun. For this reason I expect future education to increasingly take the form of games. The educational problem could be seen as a game design problem.

However, the bottom line remains the same. We are probably not going to be able to address the upcoming automation revolution with education alone. And the previous industrial revolution may have limited lessons to teach us in terms of providing a blueprint for the way ahead.

Abundance of Links — Virtual Therapists, Skip College, Gamified Brain Research, Legally Autonomous

1. Should Even Therapists Be Worried About Their Jobs Now?

A virtual programmable human will role play with adolescents and adults to teach social and assertiveness skills to prevent and treat depression. “We think this will be especially helpful for kids, who often are reluctant to see a therapist,” Mohr said. The program will allow them to practice these behaviors in the safety of virtual space. Existing online interventions for teens “look like homework,” Mohr noted. The virtual human feels like a game, making it more likely to engage them.

2. Another Promising Way to Bypass Higher Education Costs

Skip college, work at a startup. Enstitute wants to help establish this type of real-world experience as a credential. It’s working with recruiters from large technology companies to set up interviews for entry-level jobs with program graduates that would give them a chance to compete directly with college graduates. “I’ll put money on it now that our fellows will outperform any green college graduate,” Ittycheria says.

3. More Ways Games Can Help Speed Up Research

Using a new site called Eyewire, MIT will ask users to track a neuron’s path by coloring in each axon (tendril). In the future, MIT will roll out another “game” which challenges users to find the synapses. The end result will be the connectome (a tome of connections) of the mouse’s retina.

4. The Uncertain Legality of Driverless Cars

“Suppose that most cars brake automatically when they sense a pedestrian in their path. As more cars with this feature come to be on the road, pedestrians may expect that cars will stop, in the same way that people stick their limbs in elevator doors confident that the door will automatically reopen.”

Crowdsourcing Gamers for Biomolecule Design and the Greater Potential of Gaming

“Obsessive gamers’ hours at the computer have now topped scientists’ efforts to improve a model enzyme, in the first crowdsourced redesign of a protein. The online game Foldit allows players to fiddle at folding proteins on their home computers in search of the best-scoring (lowest-energy) configurations. By posing a series of puzzles to Foldit players and then testing variations on the players’ best designs in the lab, researchers have created an enzyme with more than 18-fold higher activity than the original.” (link)

This particular use of gamers and crowd-sourcing is fascinating. However, I suspect it barely scratches the surface of what is possible. I wonder if online gaming crowds can be harnessed for other types of work in other fields?

Economics, for example. One of the problems of economics is the difficulty of simulating the actions of many intelligent actors. What are online gamers if not a ready supply of such “intelligent actors”? By setting up a series of multiplayer economics games and recording all the ensuing data, I wonder if you could learn something useful.

Or perhaps you could further education by creating a game in which educators compete to write the clearest tutorials. If integrated into a larger system (such as that being worked on by Khan Academy) you could not only rate tutorials in terms of student satisfaction but also in terms of actual student success on ensuing questions.

I am optimistic about the power of games and game design to increasingly help solve difficult problems.