Hire the Robots, Free the People
Published on September 24, 2019
Rohit Talwar – Futurist Speaker
By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, and Alexandra Whittington
How might AI and the end of jobs liberate future generations?
With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technologies, it is inevitable that many jobs will be automated away. At one level, such technological unemployment is nothing new. From the advent of the steam engine and mechanization of farming, through to the robotization of car manufacturing and introduction of personal computing, jobs have always been automated by technology. Historically, this hasn’t been an issue—as new technologies have come to market, human ingenuity and the ability to create new products and services have, until now, increased the scope for employment and fulfillment.
However, things could be markedly different this time round— regular forecasts suggest the vast majority of all current jobs could be impacted or disappear through automation. Furthermore, perhaps only a fraction of those displaced will find opportunities in the highly automated growth industries of the future. This need not be a problem if we can wean ourselves off the notion of having a job as being the ultimate goal and responsibility of every individual of working age. Such a mindset and cultural transition is not without challenges. Current and critical social structures such as education, training, the welfare state, and the benefits system are clearly not fit for purpose in a jobless future. However, for future generations, this may be a blessing in disguise.
The End of Jobs?
Much of the current debate on automation focuses on the demise of existing jobs across great swathes of economic activity. The traditional loss of jobs to automation in manufacturing looks set to accelerate, and the incursion of automation into the service and white-collar sectors is gathering momentum. Can automation really replace—as some have predicted—up to 80% or more of existing jobs?
What if we were to experience this most extreme outcome from robotics and automation in the workplace and reach a point where the majority of people become technologically unemployed? How quickly would governments respond? How quickly might society redefine the notion of unemployment to have less negative connotations? What would people do all day? How would they make a living, or would this phrase become meaningless? Assuming technological unemployment impacts 80-90% of jobs—the most severe forecast—how would the majority of people survive without some form of income? And what would we do with our time (and the rest of our lives) if not employed? These questions require a societal response.
A Global “Mincome”
In twenty years, automation may have created a society where jobs aren’t available or are not being created at the scale necessary to employ the large numbers of people digitized out of a job. Employment would become a rare and specialized activity, creating huge groups of people with no job, no prospects, and no income. Governments would be forced to implement programs to relieve the economic and societal pressures that could arise: How would people buy food, pay rent, obtain education? Even more so, how would they buy the products and services—produced by the robots—that companies sell?
One of the more humane solutions proposes aggressive public policy to underpin a post-job society with basic income programs, known as universal basic income (UBI) or “mincome” (“minimum income”) and universal basic services (transport, electricity, education, sanitation, healthcare). If AI and other forms of smart technology do take over many work functions, the social safety net would need to expand beyond filling temporary gaps to forming the basis of the provision of essential needs for most people.
Today’s social safety nets are designed to protect the lowest-earning and non-earning members of the community, mostly on a temporary basis: The nature of unemployment benefits, rehabilitation, and job training programs paid for with public funds is that they are intended to encourage people back to work. Establishing a mincome for all could empower the majority and protect society from collapse due to economic imbalance. In fact, rather than provide bare subsistence, in a society where technology has enabled abundance, a mincome might offer the support needed to foster human creativity, problem solving, and innovation. Making sure all the basic needs are met across society would be a necessity in the absence of paying jobs. This could also provide a huge benefit to society in terms of maximizing human potential.
Education for the Post-Jobs World
Though many future of work predictions are foreboding, they are not death sentences. As far as the automation of mainstream work goes, we already see losses in routine white-collar office functions, but gains in computing, mathematical, architecture, and engineering related roles. However, in a future environment where machines are doing more of the process element of most roles, then social skills—such as persuasion, caregiving, emotional intelligence, and teaching—could well be in higher demand than narrow technical skills.
Recent evidence bears out the claim that teachers will be in high demand. Indeed, UNESCO has estimated that almost 70 million teachers must be recruited to achieve the goal of universal primary and secondary education by 2030. While AI might perform the logistical and technical aspects of teaching, and especially grading and assessing, there is no adequate concept yet for automating one-on-one human support in the classroom. Rather than panic at the thought of law firms replacing attorneys with robolawyers, we might see instead an opportunity to increase the number of smart people working with children. Automation could make teaching a more attractive and lucrative profession, and drive innovation in schools by enhancing human skills in the classroom.
More generally, are education systems ready to respond to the shifting nature of work and the disappearance of jobs? What is the justification for compulsory schooling, for example, in a future where jobs don’t exist? Contextual awareness and broader social competence may become the priority for schooling institutions when the technology can deliver the technical content. Schools will have to change to adapt to new realities, which could include lawyers teaching civics, social workers taking kids on field trips into at-risk communities, and scientists escorting children to conduct experiments on local waste sites.
Though AI will absorb the brunt of the informational and computational work, human insight will be vital when it comes to complex human and social problems, including the environment. AI will take jobs, but can also help ensure that education systems promote human creativity and provide insights and awareness that can be used for developing solutions that overcome some of the world’s most demanding problems.
Robots Taking Jobs – The Ultimate Win-Win?
The challenges we describe are not new. Indeed, for several generations now, outdated formal schooling has occupied the most developmental years of a person’s life under the premise of being preparation for future employment. Yet, technology trends suggest that the jobs we prepare our children for today won’t be there in ten or twenty years. As outlined, employment automation trends seem to point to the need for highly human capacities in the coming decades, suggesting that communications, caring, facilitating, conflict resolution, and problem-solving are core skills around which to design modern education systems.
Without clear-cut jobs to prepare for, future generations, enabled with some form of mincome, would then be in a position where experiential and self-guided learning could be more embedded in everyday life and become the new definition of “making a living.” Rather than spend eight hours a day in classrooms, in preparation for spending eight hours a day on a job, children could go outdoors, explore their communities, and travel short and long distances to learn about things they enjoy. Future generations could experience education that preserves humanity, not eliminates it.
There is unlimited potential for humanity in a world where work is mostly performed by machines and algorithms. One of the most positive responses to automation would be to eliminate the vast disparities in social and economic equality. In particular, our biggest gifts to future generations would be to redirect resources to ensure all people have what they need to survive, and provide opportunities so that the majority, not the lucky few, get to seek personal fulfillment. We have a choice in front of us today: use the technology at hand to create massive unemployment and economic inequality, or as an enabler of abundance and human potential.
The very same exponential technologies that could replace humans will also enable the creation of new businesses. They provide scope for creating innovative business models to bring products and services to market for a customer base who will be working in jobs that do not exist yet. Preparing future generations for tomorrow’s jobs, or the absence of work altogether, is one of the main challenges of the future. It is also one of the biggest opportunities.
- How might we rethink society based around our emerging concepts of the future of work, inequality, and the role of education?
- What would it take to harness AI to bring real freedom to humanity?
- How might different societies with different histories, social values, and cultures react to and prepare for future waves of changes in a globalized world?