A Robot will probably take your Job soon. Here’s why we should be Happy about it

RobotThis is off-topic, but then, it might not be that off at the end of the day…

In June, I attended INSEAD, France’s premier MBA School, for a week of executive education. Basically, we were taught change management, strategy, and finance. At one point, we were discussing the consequences of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. Over the last couple of years, a lot of articles and books have been published on this subject. Quite a lot of those take on a distinctly pessimistic perspective, claiming that squillions of jobs will be lost in the process. And indeed, a Chinese firm has announced that it plans to build the first robot-only factory site. Additionally, if you want to know the likelihood of being replaced by a computer in the medium run, please check this article on Fortune.com.

Now the fascinating question is: Is this a good or a bad development? The answer may, in fact, depend on the timeframe we´re looking at – and on the scope we´re considering. Have a look at this “arithmetic” problem that was given to us by INSEAD profesor Kevin Kaiser:

If a farmer with a tractor can do the work of 100 farmers without a tractor in the same amount of time: What´s the value of the tractor? The answer is: 99 farmers that are able to do something else.

This is basically what has happened over the last 1000 years or so. In the middle-ages, only a tiny fraction of the population was not working in farming. Even though, mankind could barely produce enough food to sustain itself. Today, only one percent of the U.S. population is working in that profession. The output per farmer has multiplied twelvefold – and that only covers the timeframe between 1950 and today. Just try to imagine the magnitude of the difference between a medieval and a modern farmer.

Now what has happened to those several hundred millions of people that aren’t farmers any more? Did they all become “unemployed farmers” and starved to death? The answer is no, of course. Over time, lots of them became craftsmen or merchants, later on, factory workers, service agents, psychologists, game designers, bloggers …,  [fill in whatever you like]. In short: they did something else – at least in the long run!

The idea that technological advancements will lead to large-scale unemployment is known as luddite fallacy, named after early 19th century textile workers in England, who protested against the implementation of mechanical stocking frames, culminating in riots and the destruction of factory equipment. It´s called “fallacy” because the machine breakers turned out to be wrong. They (mostly) did not starve: they did something else instead.

The fallacy is based on the assumption that there´s a limited amount of work in this world – so when a part of that whole is automated, it is “lost” to humans. This assumption is most likely wrong. We´re constantly developing new jobs (mostly services) that fulfill certain needs arising with the arrival of new technologies. By example, this article lists ten jobs that did not exist ten years ago. My question is: Why should this development suddenly come to an end?

Yes, it is true. Millions of people will lose their job to a computer or robot over the next 20 to 30 years. And from the vantage point of the individual, there will be tragedies. Some people clearly will not be able to cope. But: In the long run, people will do something else. They will not sit around and wait until they starve. They will do something else.

And again, it is true. For a lot of us, it is not clear as of now what this “something else” might be like. But I am a die-hard optimist. I am firmly convinced that whatever remains (or arises) will be more fulfilling than those jobs that are going extinct. Let´s be honest: Those jobs in that robot factory in China: how satisfying would they have been for human workers? And even if, somewhere in the near future, algorithms will be able to write news articles that are comparable in quality to those of human journalists, those journalists will find more creative work that cannot be matched by a computer program.

Recently, the German “new work guru” and former IBM executive Prof. Gunther Dueck said in a keynote:

“The simple part of work will disappear – for all of us. What remains is the challenging (or: sophisticated) part – for all of us.

Let´s all find out what the sophisticated part of our work is – the one that is truly creative and fulfilling: the one that cannot be matched by a silicone chip.


If you want to know more, please read this article by Forbes contributor and new work expert Steve Denning: The ‘Jobless Future’ Is A Myth. Another angle on that story is provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Markoff. In an intriguing long-read for Edge.org titled The Next Wave, he makes the point that we´re probably overestimating what artificial intelligence will be able to achieve in the near future. By way of example, he showcases results from a recent robotics contest, where most machines weren’t even able to properly used a door handle (“If you’re worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed”).

Vision Y: Is true Progress possible? Some German Kids think the Answer is: Yes!

Nico Rose - Munich Leadership ConferenceTwo weeks ago, I had the great honor of attending the first Munich Leadership Conference, organized by the Munich Leadership Institute – and hosting brilliant speakers such as Prof. Barry Schwartz, Prof. Barbara Kellerman, and Prof. Franz-Josef Radermacher. The overarching motto of the conference was: “How to achieve true progress”.

I had an active part in the conference, being part of a panel discussion on the question of “What attitudes drive true progress? The other panelists were Thomas Sattelberger, former CHRO of Deutsche Telekom, Kerstin Bund, a journalist who works for the Zeit, Germany´s most popular weekly newspaper, and the aforementioned Prof. Radermacher.

The highlight of the conference was the first public presentation of the so-called “Vision Y” – a framework for a peaceful, more egalitarian, and sustainable future – which a group of students envisioned after having interviewed thought leaders such as Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, scientist/author Nassim Taleb, and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.

A lot of the things that were presented reminded me of what Martin Seligman told us in the last MAPP class of 2013 about his personal vision for the year 2051. If you are interested in the “Vision Y” (and you should be…), please watch the following short clip that provides an audio-visual summary.

Additionally, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was awarded with the “Deutscher Vordenker Preis 2015” (German Thought Leader Award).

2051: Positive Psychology, Optimism, and the Florentine Moment in Time…

Tempus fugit. The first half of the MAPP program 2013/14 is over. Actually, the second and final semester is well on its way already. New subjects, new lecturers, lots of new homework…

I guess this is a good time engage in a little retrospection – and to have a look at the future as well.

I still remember sitting in the classroom at Penn on the first day, listening to Martin Seligman´s deep and sonorous voice, where he lectured on the history of positive psychology. At some point, one of my MAPP classmates asked him about his vision for positive psychology. What should be its contribution to mankind in the future?

Without much hesitation, Marty told us about his moonshot goal for positive psychology. “By 2051, I want 51% of the world´s population to be flourishing (according to the PERMA outline)”. Now in 2051, Marty will be 109 years old. So there´s good chance he´s talking about his legacy here. Could this be possible? After all, we still seem to be very far away from that number. War, poverty, and hunger are still raging in many parts of the world. But the truth is:

Things are getting better day by day, year by year.

Now I am a die-hard optimist. So if you feel I am not to be trusted, you may trust some experts (and their stats…).

  • Over the last 40 years, people have managed to rise above hunger and poverty by the billions. And this trend is very likely to continue. If you would like to know more, please watch this fabulous TED talk by Hans Rosling.
  • The likelihood of dying via homicide has decreased dramatically over the last century. Yes, there still are wars – and there still is murder. But the truth is: on a global scale, life on earth has never been safer. And once again, the trend is likely to continue. If you would like to take a deep dive, please watch Steven Pinker´s TED talk on the decline of violence.
  • Overall, we have very good reasons to be (fundamentally) optimistic about the future of mankind. Again, if you´d like to know more, please watch this TED talk by Robert Wright on zero-sum-games, optimism, and human progress.

Positive Psychology wants to play its part in this overall development by teaching people the art and science of flourishing – how to lead a meaningful, positive, and accomplished life while being actively engaged in our closer and larger social networks.

Positive Psychology has first been embraced by coaches, psychotherapists, and physicians. It is now entering the workplace more and more. And the next important step will be:

How can we bring Positive Psychology into education, community management, and policy-making? How can we bring it to China and India – those countries that account for almost 40% of the global population?

Marty Seligman believes that we (at least the western/developed world) now are at a Florentine moment in time. During what came to be known as the Renaissance, the Italian city of Florence became very rich via trading, and therefore at the same time developed into a flourishing center for all kinds of arts and culture because of all that affluence. So where are we – today? In Marty´s words (taken from his book “Flourishing”):

The wealthy nations of the world – North-America, the European Union, Japan, and Australia – are at a Florentine moment: rich, at peace, enough food, health, and harmony. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?

Time will tell. I´ve decided for myself that I want to be a part of that movement and upward trajectory. Not only does it feel better to be optimistic – it´s also rational. The alternative, being a (fundamental) pessimist, doesn’t make any sense to me (and I´ve got the data on my side…). What´s the use of being pessimistic? I am a young father – and I would love to have more children. How could I want to want this without believing there´s a good (or at least: better) future ahead, without believing this world fundamentally is a good place to live in?

Once again, time will tell. The picture beneath these lines was taken at a party at Marty Seligman´s house when he generously invited the 2013/14 MAPP students and faculty to have a Christmas celebration at his house on December 7, 2013.

MAPP 9 - Christmas Celebration

The next day, final day of the first MAPP semester, it was also Marty´s part to speak the closing words. Quite obviously very moved, he cited a passage from Kim Stanley Robinson´s book The Years of Rice and Salt:

“We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons, we will build roads through the mountains and across the deserts, and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more quadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more caste, no more hunger, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Time will tell, Marty. But I´m with you…

Not the same! On being (un-)happy in the Past, Present, and Future

Are you happy? That´s a rather easy question to answer, don´t you think? Well, turns out it´s not that easy. Because it really makes a difference what you are thinking about while trying to answer this question. What are the standards you use while evaluating your ‘human condition’?


In Positive Psychology, there are (at least) three different perspectives on this issue and they center on the timeframe that is used for evaluating one´s happiness. It is literally possible to be (un-)happy in the past, present, and future – and there´s considerable evidence that these perspectives are separate from each other (albeit closely related).

When talking about ‘happiness in the past’, we usually refer to the construct of satisfaction with life which is a global cognitive evaluation of one´s life (so far). To date, it is the most widely used measure of psychological well-being.*

When talking about ‘happiness in the present’, we usually refer to what you do when actually ask somebody “How do you feel (right now)?” How much positive or negative affect do you feel in this moment? In terms of measurement, the most widely used instrument is the so-called PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule).

And finally, there´s ‘happiness in the future’ which is concerned with our optimism. How happy do you expect to be at time X in the future?

Now the interesting thing is: all three aspects will to a certain extent determine how happy you are today. And they can be tackled and improved separately (but that´s not today´s story…)

For today: if you would like to find out how you´re doing in the past, present, and future, you can take tests at Martin Seligman´s homepage. They can be found (among others) in the menu questionnaires.


*I´ve also used that one in the study that my book is based on.

Foto credit: Pamela Moore – www.istockfoto.com