In the 21st century human labour and, as a consequence, the foundation of the society are changing dramatically due to the rapid progress of information technology. Machines are challenging human supremacy in a growing number of fields. AI can now identify cancers more accurately than trained pathologists, algorithms can detect scams and fraudulent financial transactions in a matter of milliseconds, and robotic systems can pick and pack goods with increasing precision in logistics. Every month brings a new breakthrough.
It is almost five years since the University of Oxford predicted that 35 percent of UK roles could be made obsolete by new technologies, yet fears of automation have only become more acute.
The current questions oscillate around whether AI and automation will lead to the decimation of our labour market. However, a more important question which we should be asking, is how AI and robotics will alter the substance of the many jobs that remain in place. On the one hand, new technology could deskill occupations, reduce worker bargaining power and wages, and bring forth an unhealthy degree of workplace surveillance. Yet the same technology could equally raise productivity levels, make UK businesses more competitive, open up the door to higher wages, and phase out dull, dangerous and dirty tasks.
Much will come down to the choices we make as a society and individuals within the organisations.
While it’s hard to draw a hard line on socio-economic gains caused by automation, it’s good to get familiar with objective facts that apply no matter one’s view of the world and of the economic system. We’ve decided to collect 13 of them which, from our point of view, should represent the foundation for a consensus.
- Dozens of millions of jobs will disappear within the next years and decades due to automation and the progress in what commonly is referred to as artificial intelligence. Unlike in the past when only repetitive and low-skill jobs were replaced by computers, going forward, all skill-levels will be affected.
- It’s hard to argue that the majority of jobs is made up and not essential to the day-to-day survival of humanity (“bullshit jobs”). That’s ok but too often ignored. People have always been excellent at inventing new kinds of jobs, that no one before would have guessed were needed, and we’ll keep doing that.
- The amount of human labour directly required for the survival of humanity will keep shrinking thanks to automation.
- The automation of degrading job types (such as doing the same monotonous task for 8-10 hours straight with only few breaks) is, from an objective perspective, a very good thing. After all, they are nowadays considered unworthy of a human being and we hope you’ll agree that nobody wants nor should perform them.
- What’s in the interest of the national economy is not necessarily best for the society and the well-being of the individual. From a national economic perspective, a call centre sales agent who scams old people into purchasing highly overpriced services employing deliberate deception is considered a better and more productive citizen than someone who writes music at home all day long and occasionally plays at a local bar in exchange for a few free drinks and some tips. The latter person would be labeled as lazy since he/she does not contribute to the GDP and might even receive welfare benefits from the state.
- People’s performance is generally best if they put their time and energy into something which they are passionate about or at least enjoy doing. Those who are stuck in a job which they despise or find entirely non-stimulating never give 100 percent.
- The general criteria for what is being considering a job (in contrast to hobbies, side projects or leisure activities) is whether the individual receives a direct monetary remuneration for the task. That, however, makes the term more fluid than what’s often recognised, since every leisure activity can be turned into a job if someone would finance it (Ever heard of Patreon?). You probably are aware that some online gamers have managed to create and monetise huge audiences that watch their live-streamed gaming sessions. This is how lazy suddenly becomes productive.
- In a fictive scenario, if you would offer all salaried employees to switch to an occupation of their choice while keeping their pay, many, and possibly even the majority, would choose a different job than their current one.
- Generally, self-employed people work more than salaried workers, but on average they are more satisfied with what they are doing.
- The trend of so called on-demand jobs which connects non-employed free agents to customers through online platforms such as Uber or Lyft means that an increasing number of people lose the benefits and social security of permanent jobs, exposing them to bigger risks. At the same time, their autonomy and independence from the duties of a traditional job increases as well.
- Humans who face existential fears and who have to put all their mental and physical energy into finding ways to pay their bills and put food on the table might become creative in that endeavour, but don’t have any capacity left to come up with long-term career strategies and ideas. That is one of the reasons why people keep working in jobs they are unhappy with: They can not or don’t want to afford major, strategic risk taking due to the constant lack of cash.
- The opposite type exists as well: An individual who thrives when the pressure to succeed and the negative consequences of failure are becoming intense. However, most people are not operating that way.
- If you put all ideology and moral judgements aside and just look at what’s technologically and economically feasible, then it is a fact that today’s wealthy countries could, in theory, afford to satisfy every person’s very basic needs at very low collective costs. Thanks to automation and economies of scale, digitisation and innovative technology for low-bureaucracy, highly efficient administration (such as the Blockchain), welfare costs could be reduced significantly while having a much better impact. Unlike 100 or even 50 years ago, rich countries could theoretically ensure that no individual needs to face the fear of going hungry or having to live on the streets.
Whether the automation becomes an opportunity or a threat fully depends on which conclusions modern societies draw from this status quo and how they prepare for it.