in Miscellaneous

The Academic System in 2050

One day robots will be able to do all the tasks that are necessary for our modern day lives. I’m even convinced that one day even many physicists will be replaced by robots.

Surprisingly many people I talked to can’t imagine that robots will take all the usual jobs. The main argument goes like this: “Well isn’t this what people already thought a hundred years ago? Have a look, everybody is still working 8 hours a day!”

Of courses, this is correct. For example, John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that until the end of the century we would have 15-hour work week. This is not what happened. Everyone is still working 40 hours. This is surprising because the problem isn’t that technology evolved too slow. The technology that fits into our pockets today is beyond anything Keynes could’ve imagined.

The reason for our 40 hour work weeks aren’t particularly important for the point I’m trying to make here. Still, for an interesting perspective, have a look at “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber. He argues:

Technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.

The reasons do not matter because there will be a day in the near (!) future when robots will do all these “bullshit jobs”. Only because it hasn’t happened so far, does not mean that it won’t happen in the future. At some point, there will be no way around it.

Of course, robots won’t replace every employee in the next century. Yet, a large number of employees will. Starting with bus drivers, taxi drivers, etc…

What should sound like a utopian vision, is usually regarded as a horror scenario. Mass unemployment! Poverty! What should all these people do?

The Solution and its Side-Effects

The best answer is “universal basic income”. (Negative income tax?)

This will allow all people who don’t enjoy working, to spend all their time in virtual realities. Those who want luxuries beyond “basic needs”, whatever that means in 30 years, will have to work for it. There still will be jobs, but fewer and not enough for everyone. But, with a sufficient “universal basic income” this won’t be a problem. Most people don’t enjoy their job anyway. In addition to these two categories of people, there will be a third, and this is what I want to talk about here.

A universal basic income will have a particular nice side-effect: It will revolutionize the academic system. With no worries about money, more people would do whatever is of interest to them. As a result, there would a lot more scientists. This is a usually overlooked aspect of a “universal basic income”.

In such a future, many people would do what, for example, Julian Barbour and Garret Lisi are currently doing: serious theoretical research without an academic position.

For some people, money without a job will mean that they stop doing anything that requires effort. The will start watching TV or playing video games all day.

Yet, for some, it will mean the opposite.

In her essay “On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture“, JoAnne Swanson summarizes exactly this opposite point of view:

Whatever else you can say about a shitty job that pays the bills, one thing’s for sure: as long as you have that job, or are busy looking for another one, you’ve got a built-in, airtight, socially acceptable excuse for any lack of progress toward your dreams in life. […] When I say I don’t want a job, I definitely don’t mean that I refuse to do anything that involves effort, or that I want to do nothing but watch TV and sleep. What I mean is that to the extent that it is possible, I want to find a way to use my gifts effectively without worrying about where my support will come from, and I want to help make it possible for others to use their own gifts in the same manner. The job culture is not designed to reward people for developing their gifts and working with love and joy; it’s designed, primarily, to concentrate wealth at the top.

In addition to the slackers, there will be a huge number of people who will see the chance to finally fulfill their dreams. For many, this will mean that they can now educate themselves about all the things they were always interested in. A lot more people will have the time, muse and knowledge to work on fundamental problems in science.

Currently, there is a fierce competition in science. People fight for grants and positions. As a result, no one has the time to spend, say, three years to think about one problem. The risk is too large she/he will not find a solution. In the current academic system, such a long failed project would mean career suicide.

With a universal basic income, people could think, read and write without any pressure. There would be no problem if they quit their studies after several years without any groundbreaking discovery. People would do research not to collect citations, but to understand and discover.

As Einstein put it:

Of all the communities available to us, there is not one I would want to devote myself to except for the society of the true seekers, which has very few living members at any one time.

With a universal basic income this “society of the true seekers” would get a lot of new members.

New Einsteins?

Of course, not everyone can and will be a new Einstein. Not everyone can make groundbreaking discoveries. Still, there would be dramatic benefits to science, when people could work without the pressure to collect citations

One example: A lot more people would start to write down what they understand because they have the time. Currently, almost no one is doing this. The time you spent writing about what you’ve learned last week does not help your career. You don’t collect citations with some introductory text. No matter how good your explanation is, everyone will still cite the original discoverer. Writing down what you’ve learned is not something that the academic system values. The same is true for pedagogical explanations. But without the need to optimize their h-index, people would have enough time for such “fun projects”.

But … aren’t there already enough textbooks, review articles, etc.?

No! The current problem is: Who is actually “allowed” to write textbooks nowadays? Who has actually the time to write textbooks? Who writes review articles? Only a tiny number of people: people with permanent academic positions. Even worse, in practice only a tiny number of those people who actually could write introductory texts, actually do it. This is not surprising. Writing a textbook is from a monetary standpoint, not a smart move. (I’m speaking from experience.)

However, without the pressure to make money more people could write. This means we would get lots of new unique perspectives. Everyone would have the chance to find an author who actually speaks a language he understands.

There would be hundreds of great introductory texts to any topic. If you’re having problems understanding something, no problem: just have a look at another explanation. We could learn every topic much easier.

Also, people would have the time to study all the things they were always interested in. A lot more people would learn the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and general relativity.

In summary: the chances of groundbreaking scientific discoveries would skyrocket. All the obstacles we currently have in the academic system that prevent a “new Einstein”, would no longer exist. While not everyone would be a “new Einstein”, the chances of one new Einstein would definitely be much higher.

A Glimpse of the Future

Still, we must keep in mind: Academia offers much more than money for people to do research. It also offers a community, a stimulating environment and access to scientific literature.

The last item on this list is the easiest thing to get access to for people without an academic affiliation. In 2050 we will laugh about the fact that we used to pay to download scientific papers. The existence of the arXiv is a great sign for the change in this direction.

What about the community? People need other people with similar interests to discuss topics and problems. While sites like StackExchange help a lot, they are not enough.

Luckily, we can already see first signs how this could work in practice. The crucial idea is: there can be a scientific community outside of the established academic system. This is possible through independent science institutes. Existing examples are the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, the CORES Science and Engineering Institute and the Pacific Science Institute.

Such institutes offer a community through regular in-person meet-ups. Besides, they can also enable access to the established scientific community. For example, in this nature article, Jon Wilkins, the founder of the Ronin Institute explains one of the benefits:

Simply giving people an affiliation and an e-mail address means that when they submit a paper to a journal or a conference, it will get read and their work will have a shot at surviving on its own merits.

With such concepts starting to emerge, a future with a  large community of independent researchers is something to look forward to. All the obstacles researchers outside of academia currently face can and will be overcome. Through a universal basic income, the scientific community would grow and change for the better. This is an aspect that people should emphasize more in discussions about basic income. In the long run, everyone would benefit from the resulting scientific advances. Although it always takes time, ultimately scientific advances result in technological breakthroughs. This way, the unemployed researchers would pay back their universal basic income “salary”.

P.S. I wrote a textbook which is in some sense the book I wished had existed when I started my journey in physics. It's called "Physics from Symmetry" and you can buy it, for example, at Amazon. And I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to get updates about what I'm recently up to.

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