What will happen to our jobs with the advance of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)? It could be to our advantage; we could have robots doing all the work we humans find boring, and free more of our time to focus on the more creative and satisfying work. I talk about how beneficial it could be in a previous article . However, it could turn into a nightmare (for a large portion of society) if we don’t plan and organise for this new technological revolution.
Technological advancement is not a new phenomenon
First of all, this is not a new phenomenon. The human race has gone through technological revolutions before, the most drastic being the industrial revolution. Jobs were destroyed, and many others created. For example, the blacksmith and many other craftspeople were replaced by factory workers. At a later stage, rail road workers lost their jobs with the invention of the automobile; however, many more jobs were created, such as car mechanics and car manufacturers. In this new A.I. era, new jobs will be and are being created to off-set the lost jobs, just as in the past. To name a few examples, remote controlled vehicle controllers, personalised health care specialists, big data analysts, and online chaperones to assist small businesses manage online risks. Jobs we cannot even predict will come to be/evolve, the same way we could not predict the job of a software engineer during the industrial revolution. In addition, humans will be preferred for jobs that require creativity and human empathy, such as healthcare and entertainment.
There are significant benefits to technological advances
It is also important to note that the industrial revolution has led to a much more comfortable life for millions of people. It is now the norm, at least in the developed world, to have running water and electricity in our homes. Transportation is smooth and comfortable.
So why should we be worried about this new technological era?
It took over a century of pain for most of the world to start reaping the benefits of the industrial revolution, and a lot of wars. The working class in the first industrialising countries, the current developed world, were uprooted from their rural life and forced to work in factories under appalling working conditions. It was even more difficult for the rest of the world, which was mostly colonised by the first industrial countries.
In addition, there have been negative consequences that are still impacting us till the present day. Despite the improved accessibility to modern day comforts, many people are not benefiting from it.
The gap between the rich and poor is at the highest it has ever been in history. One per cent of the world’s population owns more than 50% of the world’s wealth, while almost two thirds of the adult population (64%) have to survive on 1.9% of the global wealth. It is true that poor people in modern times are not suffering as much as they were during the era of the industrial revolution, but that is a very low bar to compare to/measure against. Industrial laborers at that time were working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, in terrible working conditions, for very low pay.
Link between technological advance and inequality
What is the link between growing inequality and advancements in technology? Even though technological progress can raise labour productivity, i.e. help people produce more, it can also, at some point in the advancement process, make it easier for corporations to substitute people for machines. This allows for greater concentration of income and wealth.
Advancements in A.I. could lead to the same outcome, albeit more amplified, if we do not regulate it. If corporations, which control the vast majority of wealth and resources in the world, start replacing people with robots, with no system in place to regulate this, we will end up with even more inequality and exclusion. Many workers and employees will become redundant as their skills will no longer be needed. In addition, a huge portion of the new generation will struggle even more than the present one to secure paid work, due to an education system that does not prepare them for higher skilled jobs. This second scenario will be more prevalent in the developing world.
The low skilled are already facing huge difficulties surviving on their incomes. Their skills are not worth very much in the market. What will happen to these people when their skills are worth even less because it is cheaper to use A.I.?
Can we afford to have another century of pain before most of the world start benefiting from this amazing technology? Will that be tolerated by the losers? Especially in a world where we are much more interconnected than the past? Can we afford more violence, more revolutions, more ‘illegal’ immigration, more terrorism?
What can we do to avoid and revert this inequality?
We need to put systems in place to ensure people are not excluded and also to ensure that everyone benefits in this new era, not just a select few. So what kind of systems do we need?
First, we need to create education systems that prepare the new generation for this new fast-changing economy through teaching them ‘how to learn’. We also need our education systems to address the re-skilling needs of the current labour force through continuous adult education, if we are to avoid excluding a large portion of the population from contributing to society. At present, the labour force that is made redundant is largely forced into idleness and poverty. Educating the new generation and re-skilling people to perform new jobs is no easy task, nor is it cheap.
The other required system is a bit trickier. We need a system that will factor in the shorter amount of time we will need to get the work done while allowing everyone to benefit. If A.I. can help us do our jobs faster, then we need to allow for substantially shorter working hours and time off. The alternative would be to hire fewer people to do the same work. Effectively that would mean making some people redundant, and making those that still have jobs work as long as they do now. Or alternatively, maintain the same workforce at the same level of effort and create unnecessary jobs.
What does history tell us about how we deal with technology and work?
Strangely enough history shows us that the second path has been the pattern humanity has taken so far as we progress technologically – creating unnecessary jobs. That is of course after laying off people in the short term once machines can do their jobs.
In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin predicted we would soon work a 4-hour week. The nineteenth century economist Peter Kropotkin deducted that we should be able to cover all our needs by working 4-5 hours a day, which could be further reduced by technological innovations. Bernard Shaw predicted we would work a 2-hour day by 2000. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicated a 4-hour work week in the near future. In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, and a 14- hour week by 2000. In the 1960s, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.
However, as we can all see, that did not happen. We are now working longer hours than the two generations before us. Technology was supposed to liberate us from the daily drudgery, but in effect/fact we are working longer hours than the two generations before us and rarely have the opportunity to switch off. In 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed. In 2005 the UK government admitted a sharp increase in excessive working hours. Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) research found that one in six employees now work more than sixty hours a week. A far cry from the predictions made by the generations before us.
This is despite the fact that many studies demonstrate that working excessive hours is counterproductive. After a certain number of working hours, the level of productivity drops. Moreover, the expected working hours of modern life ‘work ethic’ is causing high levels of stress that the human body is unable to deal with, and thus it is making us sick and sometimes even kills us.
What have we got to show for all this work?
Are we all living in lavish luxury? Have we eliminated poverty from the planet? Are we providing food and healthcare for everyone? Far from it. Nearly half of the world’s population – more than 3 billion people – live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty – less than $1.25 a day, and 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
So where is all our effort going if we are working harder than the two generations before us? It seems we must be wasting our time since we do not have much to show for it, or at least nothing very useful to show. The avant garde visionary thinker, Buckminister Fuller, commented on this phenomenon in 1981, claiming that 70% of US jobs were unnecessary, such as inspectors of inspectors, people making instruments for inspectors of inspectors, re-underwriters of insurance reinsurers, obnoxious promoters….etc.
Fuller’s insight into this strange phenomenon hits upon the root cause for this. As a human race we have a false idea that “everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist”.
So now what?
How do we avoid following the same pattern of the past that has led us to excessive inequality, sickness and death?
A paradigm shift in our belief system needs to happen in order to implement the two systems mentioned above regarding the way we organise education and work at a global level. A paradigm shift in the values that underpin our economic system needs to take place. We need to re-think and redefine what we mean by “work ethic”. We need to take a deep questioning look at our need to justify our existence through excessive work, even when this work is not needed. We need to take a hard look at how we decide who is deserving of support from society. And most importantly we need to think deeply about how we distribute our resources.
In effect, changing the way we organise ourselves around education and work is a redistribution of wealth. This is a controversial topic for most people and highly emotionally charged. That is why we need to envisage how this new system will make us all live richer lives (Please see my article on how this new system could work for all of us)
 According to Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report 2018: https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/research/research-institute/global-wealth-report.html
https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/system/files/resources/files/errs16_main.pdf; The Idler, Spring 2005, Issue 35, p.39
 United Nations Development Programme. “Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.” Human Development Report, 2014.
 United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME). “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A promise renewed.” UNICEF, 2014.