Some think it will boost humanity to heights previously unimagined. Others believe it will be our undoing. Either way, we can all agree it will change the way the world works even if we can’t even begin to describe the specifics of how those changes will look. One thing that does come up a lot is how it will change the world of work and that’s something we should take seriously because of the potential for wide scale social disruptions.
I read an interesting article a couple of days ago from where I’ve linked the chart above. That chart describes work, split into four broad parts based on whether it requires manual labor or mental labor as well as whether it’s routine or non routine. As you can see, employment from anything routine has sort of flat lined over the years. This is because conventional machines run on code, a set of instructions on how to process inputs and provide some sort of outputs. So if you can codify the work, it’s probably been or is being replaced by robots and/or computers. Even China, once renowned for cheap labor fueled manufacturing is rapidly automating. News blobs like the one from this article repeated below, are only going to get more common.
Midea, a major appliance maker, is in the forefront of a full-blown charge by China’s manufacturing sector into robot-powered factory automation. Companies nationwide over the past five years have ramped up robotics in the face of labor woes, such as worker shortages and rising wages, and to cut their production costs. In the process, they’ve helped build a new market for Chinese robot manufacturers that are competing against multinational rivals.
So it seems like the last bastions of work are the non-routine manual works – think artisans, crafts work, etc. and non-routine cognitive tasks. While the former is generally not well paid, the cake as it were is in the latter, and we’ve tended to believe that we’ll always trump computers/robots in that regards. Until now.
For some years a new paradigm, machine learning, has been changing the game for artificial intelligence and it’s accelerating. One key example was the recent trouncing of a human being by AlphaGo, a computer, in the game of G0, which is so mathematically complicated that you have to play it not by brute force by some sort of feeling or heuristic, which is how humans proceed. Today it’s a game, tomorrow it’s probably your job. Such is the nature of progress. And that type of progress brings with it a lot of questions.
What would we do given that we earn our living from working? If a robot can do it better without complaints, demands for a minimum wage, all day and everyday, will humans be able to compete? Perhaps in a future version of a mental sweat shop where cognitive power is exchanged for the lowest possible price? Dear Lord! Dreadful thoughts. And what about inequality? How will that play out? It’s easy to see that he who controls the technology is set up for life. And beyond. We can fully expect inequality to get even worse. And all those developing countries dreaming of a future manufacturing boom to provide employment (cough, Nigeria)? So the future looks like a place of mass unemployment and burgeoning inequality. Unless radical things happen.
One of the radical ideas is a universal basic income for all of humanity to account for the loss of opportunity, in other words a decoupling of income from jobs since there won’t be enough jobs to go around anyway. This would obviously be financed by those who control production and represents a kind of grand redistribution. A neo-socialism. It sort of makes sense – every human with enough income to live well, free to pursue whatever creative interest, while robots deal with the drudgery. Yeah… Given that socialism is a dirty word these days, I’m fairly confident it won’t pan out that way. But we do need such big thinking to get out of the mess that will almost certainly come.
I’ve not provided any answers here. Because I don’t know. It wasn’t a mistake that the title is a question. Please, have a think as well. And let me know.