The Future of Work

Paul Krugman raised an intriguing point some time ago: the jobs that will disappear due to mechanization are not necessarily jobs that require a low skill level, but jobs that require repetition.

He is probably right, but perhaps only in the short term. Even in the next few decades, banks could conceivably design algorithms to calculate the best investments, cutting out humans and human error in the process. Machines could be devised that compare a list of symptoms against a database in order to prescribe treatments, and should this technology be linked to an online database (which is likely) then it would have instant access to information on rare diseases, which could cut down on false diagnoses and, again, human error. Such a technology would effectively eliminate most doctors’ jobs.

Aircraft pilots, taxi drivers, and many other career paths may be eliminated. Then the question becomes: how does the population train people for the future? What jobs will we require? Will we need any jobs at all?

It is perfectly conceivable that once artificial intelligence is sophisticated enough and robotics are advanced enough, the entire production line—from the extraction and transport of minerals and resources to the manufacturing of parts and their assembly, sale, and delivery—may be completely automated, as well as the capture of energy required to run the necessary machines. Even service sector jobs such as banking or software development could be eliminated. Given sufficient progress, it may be perfectly possible to create a socialist utopia, where the means of production are publicly owned, and because machines would have the capability to self-replicate in order to boost productivity (a process that doesn’t require paying them wages, like we do to workers today), a society of plenty and abundance could be created.

Should such a future be possible in the next couple of centuries, two factors would constrain its progress: technological limitations and potential political backlash. I doubt the former will be a barrier so much as the latter. There is much more that can be done in terms of increasing machine intelligence, and the processes of extraction, transportation, assembly, and delivery may not require an extraordinary amount of machine intelligence to begin with. Even if those processes do require an extraordinary amount of intelligence, then it is perfectly imaginable that a supercomputer at a distance could remotely direct robots onsite. We already control robots on Mars from Earth; such a leap would not be that great a challenge. Certain tasks such as identifying mineral reserves could be difficult, but even then it is easy to imagine that computer technology could eliminate the need for human workers in that area as well.

There is, of course, the question of whether such a society is worth it. What will be the cost on humanity to have so many idle people? What will be the corrosive effect on humanity? And should a terrorist group launch a successful cyberattack, it could cripple an entire society. On the other hand, of course, people would have seemingly unlimited time for the arts, exploration, and scientific inquiry.

No, the real roadblock to a machine-run socialist society will be political. The transition to such a system will be painful and brutal. The loss of blue collar work through mechanization (though outsourcing will continue to serve as a scapegoat for some time) has already led to a substantial backlash in the form of President-elect Donald Trump, and is perhaps partially responsible for the populist resurgence among Europe’s far right. When machine intelligence begins to threaten white collar workers, those with substantially more economic and political influence, it is conceivable that a lobby or anti-technology voting bloc may arise.

To be absolutely clear: technological progress is a net positive. Technology has limitless possibilities to improve human lives and push the boundaries of science and discovery. What is necessary is its responsible use. Regulations may be necessary so that technology works in conjunction with people, enabling them to be more productive without eliminating their use entirely.

In the near term, the focus has to shift away from an emphasis on college education. As discussed earlier, even doctors and investment bankers are not safe. The focus ought to be on training students to be ready for careers that require critical thinking and creativity. Or rather, it’s possible that the idea of teaching specific skills will become an outdated concept, one that will leave generations woefully unprepared for the global economy if it continues to reign in the academy and in society at large. A better method may be continuing education and state-sponsored worker retraining programs as the global economy evolves.

Perhaps humanity may never arrive at this point. Or perhaps humanity will destroy itself before machinery can run the world. Whatever the case, I suspect that should humanity survive climate disruption and the limitless ways in which our species may destroy itself, then eventually societies will arise that are run almost entirely by computers.

When such a thing will happen is of course unknowable, but given the tremendous impact that technology has had on the labor market in only the past decade, it is worth considering how our world may transform itself farther down the line. Such an exercise may seem futile to some, and to an extent that may certainly be the case, but advocates for globalization—of which I am one—completely underestimated the negative backlash that a technologically sophisticated and interconnected world would engender, a backlash embodied in the election of Donald Trump. Let us not be caught so unprepared in the future, but instead anticipate the challenges and the opportunities to come. And let us be ready to capitalize on those opportunities, to the greatest extent that we can.

This article was written by Fairooz Adams. Click here to see more of Fairooz’s work.


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