There seems to be increased automation of jobs, but what is the endgame of automation? How will automation shape our society and our work?
The power of AI and the increasing automation of jobs is one of the main drivers impacting the Future of Work. AI and its physical embodiment, robots, are able to drive cars (although not safely enough yet), stitch wounds, write news articles, produce music, respond to customer calls and to carry out many other jobs that until recently were only reserved to humans.
Is this an irreversible trend that will end with a world without work? Or will AI get stuck and fade into another winter or autumn? What is the endgame of automation? Below we explore some options.
The Singularity is Near
Proponents of the Singularity like Kurzweil or Diamandis believe that AI will reach super-intelligent level in the next few decades, thus ushering an explosion of ever-increasing intelligence and abundance that will solve all humanity’s problem.
“Will robots inherit the Earth? Yes, but they will be our children”.Marvin Minsky
We shouldn’t be afraid of the robots and AI that will take over the Singularity, as they will be designed and programmed by humans. They will be our children.
If not our children, the techno-utopians postulating the advent of Singularity believe we will merge with machines and we’ll be part of that superintelligence. We will probably be connected to the internet through our brains and we’ll have access to all the knowledge the human species has amassed.
Obviously in this world there wouldn’t be any work left to do for humans. AI and robots would do it all. It would be a time of abundance. Food would be 3D printed and would therefore be almost infinite, we would have dominated fission energy sourced by hydrogen or captured solar energy more efficiently, thus having also a quasi-infinite source of energy, we would have found the cure of cancer and other diseases, and understood how aging works at the cellular level, hence increasing our lifespans by centuries or actually making as a-mortals (we wouldn’t die due to disease or aging, but could still be killed in an accident or due a fatal wound). If this fails, we could get some sort of immortality by uploading our consciousness and memories into a computer.
If it sounds like a utopian world, it’s because it is. Kurzweill and other proponents of this thinking are very smart people who are known for having been right when making predictions in the past, so I wouldn’t bet against them, but I still perceive a bit of wishful thinking and over-optimism in their vision.
To start with, it is not clear yet if it is even technologically possible and we’ll ever get to the singularity. They seem to be extrapolating from currently exponentially growing curves, but these curves almost always plateau, and it will be the same with computer power and the uses of AI. Some people think we are getting to the end of Moore’s Law and we are reaching a dead end in AI.
Even if the Singularity were technologically achievable, would we be capable of managing it well? The human species is known for achieving great technological feats, but is also known for its blunders and messing it up completely in many cases. Playing God with a technology like a super-intelligent AI that can self-improve at a blistering speed and leave us in the dust is inherently risky, and the stakes are very high. It could mean our extinction as a species.
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”Stephen Hawking
If we managed well the technology and were able to control the super-intelligent AI or merge ourselves with it, what is the probability of only a few people having access to it and this elite controlling the rest of the population? Yuval Noah Harari argues in his famous books (Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), that this could happen, and I agree that there is some risk there. The Singularity could be used to increase inequality exponentially or to eliminate it altogether. Which option would we chose?
Last but not least, and maybe this is my inner resistance to change and to imagining myself in such a different world, but personally I don’t find this utopia so attractive. It feels more like a dystopia.
After we merge with machines, would we still have emotions? Or would we get rid of them as being a useless feature of a bygone era? Would sex suffer the same fate? Would we still dance?
As agreed with my very good friend Mattias one night out in London some years ago when we were pondering these profound questions, “what’s the point of dancing when you know everything?” There is no point, really.
A World without Work
Another alternative future could be one in which we haven’t reached the Singularity, but most jobs have been automated and the majority of the population doesn’t have to work.
In our society today work is an important element of our personal identity, it gives us status, it makes us grow and develop ourselves and, in some cases, it gives meaning and purpose to our lives. It also helps pay the bills. What would happen in a world without work?
The Marienthal study could shed some light on it. This study was carried out in the post-Great Depression Germany, in a town ravaged by unemployment. The authors carried out a socio-psychological study of almost 500 families where all members were unemployed, and the results were revealing:
“The unemployed experienced lower expectations and activity, a disrupted sense of time, and a steady decline into apathy. They tended to be lonely, isolated, hopeless and passive, yet prone to bursts of violence”
Is this what our future will bring us? It doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Historically speaking, the positive moral value of work as something desirable is a relatively recent phenomenon linked to Protestantism.
In ancient times work was associated to toiling and sweating. The Bible said it already, “by the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat”.
In ancient Greece the citizens of the polis didn’t work at all. All work was carried out by slaves, so the citizens could dedicate their time and attention to occupations of the mind like philosophy, arts, culture and politics.
Could robots be the slaves of the 21st century and could we see a Greek-style renaissance in which the arts and philosophy flourish because the entire world population is dedicated to them?
I would love this to happen, but I find it easier to imagine a world in which a big part of the population spend most of their lives hooked to some sort of escapism, be it a virtual world, binge-watching of TV or series, drugs or all of the above.
Then there is the question of inequality. In a world without work, how is wealth distributed? People wouldn’t work, but products and services would still be purchased, and wealth would still be created. The owners of the means of production (robots and AI) would get all the spoils and would become uber-rich, but how would they share some of that wealth with the rest of the population? Would they do it and if so, what proportion of it?
There is also the possibility of having a world in which AI continues to evolve and have more and more applications in real life and in business, but it hasn’t destroyed the big majority of jobs for humans. In this hypothetical endgame, AI and robots have replaced plenty of jobs, but they have also enhanced, complemented and created many others, so a big majority of the population still has a job.
In this scenario AI would have remained narrow (ANI, or Artificial Narrow Intelligence), without reaching the AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) status of the first scenario and possibly the second one. Machine learning technologies would continue to improve and get better at analysing large amounts of data, making predictions and finding patterns, and the technology would be used to solve an ever-increasing array of problems, but the basic technology would remain the same.
Like in previous technological disruptions, some skills would become obsolete and others would be in higher demand, so there would be some upheaval in the job market and millions of people would have to reinvent themselves, but a majority of the population would still have a job.
Many of the jobs created wouldn’t even exist today and we don’t even imagine what they are (Cognizant had a go at this through two reports, here and here, with some interesting ideas and creative business titles), but the productivity gains brought by the AI and robotics revolution would allow the creation of new industries and new job families.
Nobody knows how well or badly these new job families would fare, but if the current trends are something to go by, many of the jobs displaced by automation would be fairly well-paid middle skilled jobs, like paralegals, middle-management jobs, some medical specialities, etc. whereas low-skilled jobs in the services industry requiring human interaction and high-skilled jobs requiring highly demanded skills would be safe and would continue to thrive. The originated so-called hollowing out or polarization of the economy would considerably increase wealth inequality, which I believe is one of the main scourges of our times.
In this scenario the jobs left to human beings would have to be those in which we are still better than AI or preferred by our human fellow consumers, so these jobs would have to require human interaction, emotional intelligence, creativity or working in ambiguous situations in which context is very important.
As I said, many low-skilled, low-paid jobs would still be on demand, but many of the most repetitive jobs that can be considered an insufferable drudgery by their holders would disappear. Would overall job satisfaction increase as a consequence?
Which one do you prefer?
Some people are concerned about AI evolving too much too quickly and us not being ready yet for a super-intelligence. Others, on the other hand, think the recent pandemic has woken us up to the limitations of AI and that no big revolution will be coming from these quarters. Who is right?
Difficult to say at this stage, but as futurists concerned about a Humane Future of Work, it is our role to think about all possible futures, try to nudge ourselves towards the future we prefer and get prepared to the other ones just in case.
Which of these three would you prefer and why? And how can we get ready for the future(s) we don’t like?