The Future of Work is “Turking for Uber” and you Won’t Like it

Here’s a simple reality that’s important to come to grips with.

80-90% of the work that is currently being done will be automated in the next 20-30 years.

In other words, bots (autonomous software) will do the work people used to do to earn a living.

Nobody seems to have a clue as to what most people will be doing for work when bots take their jobs.

I have a pretty good idea what they will do (and I have a pretty good track record on this type of stuff).  I can be sure of one thing.  It’s not going to be pretty.  In fact, I believe it is going to be damned ugly.

Here’s what you and your kids will be doing for work in the future, and you won’t be alone.

It’s what billions of people all over the world will be doing to earn their living.

NOTE:  This is what happens when you let an amoral marketplace and an incompetent government bureaucracy dictate your future instead of deciding it for yourself.

Most work will be turking.

What is turking?  It’s when human beings do the work that bots aren’t able to do yet, but they do it in a way a bot would do it.

NOTE:  Turking is a name taken from a contraption from the late 1700’s called the Mechanical Turk.   The Mechanical Turk was built as a hoax.  It was billed as a machine that was smart enough to play chess like a human being.  In reality, the machine was actually controlled by a human being hiding inside it.

You can see the start of this type of work at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site right now.  There are thousands of jobs available right now and all you need to do is click a few links to get them.



The jobs are pretty basic data entry like this:

Turk job


It’s not hard, but you don’t get paid much to do it either.  However, this is just early days and Amazon isn’t alone in doing this.

There are lots of fast growing labor based companies in the “sharing economy” that are moving in this direction too.   Companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Samasource are heading in this direction too.

Although it may not seem like it now, this is what these companies will end up doing as they begin to replace workers with bots (for example: Uber will start to replace drivers with self-driving vehicles by 2019, when the first self-driving cars are starting to sell in volume).

The reason why this will occur isn’t that obvious.  It’s due to the way bots will eat jobs (and they will eat jobs in every industry from construction to medical to law to education to farming to government).

When bots take over jobs, they will force a restructuring of the workplace.   However, there will still be things that bots can’t do.

That’s what turking is for.  Turking services use human beings to do the portions of a job bots can’t do.

This isn’t going to be the creative and meaningful work people hope it will be, it will be exactly the opposite.

Additionally, these jobs will be built in a way that a bot would do it, so they can fit in with all of the other work already being done by bots.

Further, it also needs to be done in a way that a bot can learn from what the human beings do.

As you can imagine, training bots to do everything a human mind can do is going to be a HUGE industry.  An industry so big it is going to create some of the biggest companies in the world (Turk companies could employ hundreds of millions of people all over the world, making them 100x larger than the largest employers in the world today).

However, as bad as this is, it can get worse.

The turking vs. bot dynamic is going to create a a need for lots of retraining — as soon as a bot learns how to do the job, it forces the Turk into a new job.

My gut suggests that this “retraining” will be in the form of online education provided for a fee by the company providing the job.  However, if you don’t have the money, the company will offer you a micro-loan of the type we see ravaging the developing world right now.

NOTE:  Micro-loans are a “market based” humanitarian experiment that has become a scourge.  It’s done the impossible.  It found a way to turn hundreds of millions of poor people into perpetual debtors paying extortionate interest rates — locking them into debt based poverty forever.  Who knew that debt was a bad thing (we used to know this)?

You can guess what this dynamic will look like.

  1. Micro-loan offered at extortionate interest rate financing training for turking job.
  2. Turking job lasts a couple of months.  Earnings are garnished to pay loan.
  3. Bot eats job.
  4. New loan required for more training.   Cycle repeats.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be our future.

We can do better than the idiots in Washington and the parasites on Wall Street.


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Discussion — 26 Responses

  • Alan October 9, 2014 on 12:59 pm

    John, you present a startling and negative view of our future. When you say “we can do better” – what do you suggest?

  • Javier October 9, 2014 on 5:29 pm

    Im glad that you’re mad about this, you think and write better enraged.

  • Dann October 9, 2014 on 6:52 pm Reply
  • Derek October 10, 2014 on 3:48 pm

    Hi John,
    Sincere question re: micro-loans…can you point me to a source or news item discussing what you describe as the “scourge” of micro loans? I looked around and did not come up with anything from a trusted news source. I do have some familiarity with Muhammad Yunus’ work that is admittedly a few years out of date. Is the problem with all micro-loans globally or is it a few “bad actors”? Not meaning to sound naive here: I’m genuinely interested because I’m a member of multi-stake holder co-op that does a little bit of micro-lending to start clinics in under-served areas.

    • John Robb Derek October 10, 2014 on 5:04 pm

      Very little is written about it today since the banks absorbed it. The average interest rate is an extortionate 40% a year. It’s money for increased consumption, not productive investment.

    • Eric Fletcher Derek October 20, 2014 on 7:34 am

      I’d be interested in hearing if John would feel that Kiva is a member of the “scourge” of micro-lenders (and if so, why). As one of >1.2M people who have loaned >$624M since 2005, I see no evidence that Kiva charges extortionist rates. The average Kiva loan is ~$420, and the repayment rate is nearly 99%. Most (but not all) loans are for productive investment, such as purchasing animals or materials, and upgrading plant. Read how it works here:

      • John Robb Eric Fletcher October 20, 2014 on 7:45 am

        Yes. They route their money through local partners that charge extortionate rates.

        • Eric Fletcher John Robb October 21, 2014 on 9:52 am

          According to a Kiva help article, the average interst rate and fees charged by their field partners is ~34% ( However, the article explains why the rate is not so bad as it may seem: the loans are typically quite small (so the admin overhead is a big factor), and many of the countries have high inflation rates (which reduces the real impact of an interest rate that is larger than what we might expect in developed nations).

          I appreciate how Kiva is very transparent about its partner arrangements: you can examine the ROA and performance indicators for any partner to decide whether or not to apply your $25 loan through them.

          I guess my main question would be is if it wasn’t for mico-lending options like Kiva, what alternatives would individuals in developing nations have to improve their lot? Local money lenders? Oligarchies?

          • John Robb Eric Fletcher October 29, 2014 on 4:16 pm

            The traditional approach is to save and buy w/o debt. We did that for nearly 200 years in the US => nearly every country in the world was better off than we were economically when we started. Debt looks lie an easy shortcut, it’s actually a trap. In this case, it’s a global scale system for transferring/concentrating wealth.

    • William Tarbush Derek August 18, 2015 on 8:32 pm

      There are plenty of articles on Grameen Bank (a micro-lender) as a scourge. I access them through my local university.

  • Future Dweller October 11, 2014 on 11:26 am

    Interesting speculation

  • Michael C October 12, 2014 on 2:49 am

    You are an idiot. You are assuming that the people will not move towards more productive jobs. You are a luddite

    • John Robb Michael C October 12, 2014 on 7:25 am

      You don’t know what Luddism is. Please check your terms before adding a comment.

  • Gene K October 13, 2014 on 7:37 am

    Interesting John, and a few thoughts. First the vulnerability described is evident in macro work, not micro. In other words it is easier to replace a worker at a Ford plant with a machine than a worker in that same person’s home repairing it, painting it, mowing the grass. My point is that the workplace is segregating “work that can be efficiently robotized” and “work that cannot easily be automated”. That needs to be a consideration for the shaping and training of the future workforce. Human workers going up against a machine for the larger scale projects is pointless, but going after the repair and maintenance of ever smaller machines and problems can be effective, and frankly, more rewarding.

    As for the loan issue, peer to peer lending is a trend that will allow more efficient attacks on the conventional banking systems, and will drive market based interest rates. Capital tends to seek efficient employment, so in a zero interest rate world in a regular bank and a micro rate of 40% you will find the market will seek out a middle ground where both borrower and lender are satisfied with the capital terms. Extreme positions are rarely sustainable.

    • John Robb Gene K October 13, 2014 on 1:34 pm

      Gene, Bot-based systems (systems based on autonomous “intelligence”) work differently that industrial. They make it possible to automate the micro and nearly all of the “knowledge work” currently being done. Unfortunately, the ancient economic system we are currently using to roll this technology out will result in very bad outcomes — guaranteed.

      Again — debt is debt is debt. Debt does not create economic progress since it doesn’t yield economic independence as an outcome. By borrowing from the future it yields faster short term expansion (growth not progress) but the benefits largely accrue to a wealthy elite. Income stratification concentrates economic decision making in the hands of a few and the fewer the decision makers the lower quality the economic decision making (as the Soviets found out).

  • Phil Jones October 13, 2014 on 9:38 am

    I’m not quite as negative as you on micro-credit, though I agree the term has begun to be exploited by less scrupulous lenders than the original founders of the movement.

    But this is, otherwise, a great analysis.

    You might be interested in something I wrote here :

    • John Robb Phil Jones October 13, 2014 on 1:24 pm

      Debt is debt is debt. It’s the reason we see wealth stratifying with each passing year. Thanks for the link, will give it a read. JR

  • A October 13, 2014 on 7:18 pm

    You are right to be concerned but you may want to consider an alternative and more optimistic perspective:

    Nothing is set in stone yet and anything in the creative sector will be safe for quite a while. Not so sure us humans with money will be big fans of ‘robot art’ and ‘robot songs’, etc.

    Micro loans don’t really have anything to do with robotic displacement of workers. That being said, I agree that they are extortionate level money-grabbing schemes that need to be fixed.

    America may yet be home free but for that to happen capitalism needs to be reigned in and held accountable and dynamically owned (as I believe you’ve mentioned elsewhere).

  • Corey October 15, 2014 on 1:44 pm

    The flip side of automation is that the cost of getting the job done is reduced. If — and it’s a big “if” — the market for whatever is being produced is competitive, then the price of the product will drop in line with the cost reductions. One person, simultaneously a worker and a consumer, may find that they shitty work for low pay is more than made up for by the reduced costs of the products they consume (especially if the amount of time spent working to earn the money needed for basic necessities is reduced by automation).

    So increased automation can be a boon or a hardship; the overall balance depends on who captures the gains. Your forecast implicitly assumes that all of the gains will go to parasites on Wall Street, enabled by idiots in Washington. This is certainly possible, but it’s not necessarily obvious. (Tangentially, free markets are awesome; the main problem is that (to a first approximation) every participant in a market wants to be a monopoly/monopsony, and to become one.will eagerly distort the market by whatever means possible.)

  • Paul-Olivier Dehaye October 18, 2014 on 7:12 pm

    I am 100% with you, but coming from the MOOC side. I am glad you beat me to writing something along those lines. I am in the education sector, trying to raise awareness about the downsides of opening up education at a large scale if we are blinded by utopian rhetoric (a la Evgeny Morozov).

    Actually, I set up a course on Coursera aiming to explain some of those issues (and others) at scale, to 1000s of students. I was not able to conduct it to its end, due to other ethical reasons tied to the Facebook Experiment taking precendence.

    Here are some links to add to your thoughts:
    (a programming language for humans!)
    (see comments there too)
    (these two really coming from an educational perspective)

    I think that the natural evolution will be a blend of the wettest dreams of Jeremy Rifkin (“Zero Marginal Cost Society”) and the exact pitfalls Jaron Lanier tries to warn about (“Who owns the future?” , “You are not a gadget”).

    Lanier in particular makes lots of connections between mortgages and crowdsourcing (although he doesn’t use the term), which you might find interesting.

    Here are two quotes from “Who owns the future”:

    p. 16: As much as it pains me to say so, we can survive only if we destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, photographers. What is not survivable is the additional destruction of the middle classes in transportation, manufacturing, energy, office work, education and health care.

    p. 79: The information economy that we are currently building doesn’t really embrace capitalism, but rather a new form of feudalism.

    A clear “Road to Serfdom” indeed…

  • Sasha October 21, 2014 on 1:58 am

    Work for turk is a waste if time. Been there done that. For a company which strives to ‘do no harm’.
    In the end I was terminated. Thats tge term they used. Oh yes. It is not the nig G. Company. Yhey have an intermediary.
    And I still use gmail. Idiot.

  • vxxc2014 November 3, 2014 on 12:49 pm

    Mr. Robb,

    No election saves us from the parasites on Wall Street or the Idiots in Washington.
    Or Sir the idiots on Wall Street and the Super-Parasites in Washington. You do realize they are one now functionally and in reality, and neither can reign in the others. The ACELA corridor is locked in Danse Macabre, held together by the gravity of their own vices.

    Here’s their situation when you combine American Governments total debt obligations with the Derivatives awaiting the margin call of Doom [$800Trillion USD]: they need $1000T to meet their obligations – without which they may not survive.

    The significance of TARP and the $29T and out to $100T Finance Bailouts of 2008 forward is Cortes and his merry band have burnt their ships on the Hudson and Potomac, and must take the land beyond completely or perish. This of course was Cortes Choice from the time he sailed, and he knew it well. ACELA knows it as well.
    So what you are talking about must accelerate from their standpoint of existential interest.

    I’d look to mid 19th Century Ireland to see a potential favorable outcome for them. Remember it was a Debt driven famine, the food supply was only locally interrupted but what was there had to be sold to make the minimum debt payments.

    Which doesn’t invalidate your conclusions about the intentions of our neofeudal tech sector, but it may mean they’ll either have a much smaller labor pool to exploit or that their model has been overcome by events.

  • James Bowery February 9, 2015 on 3:12 pm writes
    Google, with billions of dollars in the bank and house-by-house maps of most of the planet, seemed like the perfect partner for Uber, the hugely popular ride-hailing service. But Mike Isaac writes in the NYT that just two years after Google’s venture capital arm poured more than $250 million into Uber there are signs that the companies are more likely to be ferocious competitors than allies. Uber recently announced plans to develop self-driving cars, a longtime pet project at Google. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, has publicly discussed what he sees as the inevitability of autonomous taxis, saying they could offer cheaper rides and a true alternative to vehicle ownership. “The Uber experience is expensive because it’s not just the car but the other dude in the car,” Kalanick said at a technology conference in 2014, referring to the expense of paying human drivers. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost [of taking an Uber] gets cheaper than owning a vehicle.” Uber is also adding engineers who are experts on mapping technology. And the company, based in San Francisco, has been in talks with Google’s advertising archrival, Facebook, to find ways to work together.

    Not to be outdone, Google has been experimenting with a ride-sharing app similar to Uber’s and both companies have long toyed with the idea of offering same-day delivery of items like groceries and other staples. Last month Google announced it would start presenting data from third party applications inside Google Now, a service that displays useful information prominently on the screen of Android smartphones. Google said it had struck deals to draw data from such apps as Pandora, AirBnb, Zillow, and the ride-sharing service Lyft. The company most obviously missing from that list? Google’s old and possibly former friend, Uber. According to Isaac, for young companies, even one as well funded as Uber, dancing with giants is a part of doing business — even if there is always a risk of getting squashed. “There are some hard lessons about the dangers of cooperation that are strongly in the memories of these companies,” says John Morgan. “Something that makes partnering harder, even when it might make economic sense to do so.”

  • OK September 26, 2015 on 12:11 pm



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