Is a world without work a reality we need to prepare for?
In my last episode of Short and Sweet AI, I discussed whether the fear of machines taking over jobs was truly misplaced anxiety, as experts say. Experts believe that there’s no cause for alarm, but not everyone agrees.
Some believe that a future where human workers become obsolete is a real possibility we need to prepare for.
In this episode, I delve into the theory that our future will be a world without work. I discuss Daniel Susskind’s fascinating book, A World Without Work, which explores the topic of technological unemployment in great detail.
You can listen to the episode below or keep reading to learn more.
A world without work
While many economists, futurists, and AI thinkers agree that technological unemployment isn’t a real threat, not everyone shares the same opinion.
Daniel Susskind, an Oxford economist and advisor to the British government, believes that the threat of artificial intelligence is very real. He urges us to start discussing the future of work because, as he sees it, the future of work is a world without work.
In his recent book, A World Without Work, he explains that what’s been called a slow-motion crisis of job loss due to automation isn’t really slow-motion anymore.
While artificial intelligence has increased productivity and GDP, Susskind presents evidence that suggests technological unemployment is coming.
We have already seen machines take over manual jobs for decades. Although the American manufacturing economy has grown over the past few decades, it hasn’t created more work for people. In fact, manufacturing produces 70% more output than it did in 1986, and yet it requires 30% fewer workers to produce it.
Can machines perform the same tasks as humans?
Experts have been quick to highlight that there will still be a great need for human skills such as cognitive skills and empathy. However, machines are increasingly excelling in those areas as well.
AI deep learning can be used to read X-rays, compose music, review legal documents, detect eye diseases, and personalize online learning systems.
There’s also evidence to suggest that machines can replicate human skills such as empathy and emotion detection. Algorithms are making headway into accurately reading human emotions through facial recognition and language. This is something I have discussed previously in my episode on emotion and AI.
One of the most significant points that Susskind makes is that we think machines can’t perform human tasks because they can’t do them in the same way as we can.
For example, doctors use their vast hands-on experience and gut instinct when treating patients – something a machine can’t do. However, just because machines can’t perform tasks in the same way as humans do, doesn’t mean they can’t perform them at all.
Machines are still capable of doing these tasks. They just do so in a different way.
What does this mean for us? The three capabilities that humans use to earn a living are manual skills, cognitive skills, and emotional intelligence. Machines can already replicate many of those skills and not just the manual ones.
Susskind doesn’t know exactly when this work crisis will happen but believes it will be sooner than most people realize. Perhaps within decades, but certainly within the 21st century because over the next 80 years, machines will become a trillion times more powerful!
How will society need to adapt?
In his book, Susskind asks two very important questions. How will we earn enough to live on, and how will we all find meaning in our lives?
He believes that governments (or the Big State as he calls it) will need to redistribute income and wealth. Governments will also need to introduce programs that nudge us into behaviors that give us fulfillment and meaning – rather than yielding to Netflix, boredom, and despair.
Instead of labor market policies, we could see governments forced to develop leisure policies instead to shape the way people use their spare time. Does that mean the future of work will become the future of leisure?
Finding meaning without work
Some worry that we will struggle to find meaning without work. However, at different points in history, large groups from the Greeks to the English have led meaningful lives without work. For example, in Victorian England, the upper classes may not have worked, but they created some of the greatest poetry, literature, and science the world has known.
While fictional, the science fiction series The Expanse paints an interesting picture of a future without work. In this future, there’s no work for most people on Earth, and so governments provide a type of universal basic income. However, some families felt strongly that they wanted their children to live a meaningful life with work. Their only option was to move to Mars to find work with the military and other new opportunities.
I highly recommend reading Susskind’s A World Without Work. He goes into much more detail with entertaining examples and comprehensive discussions about universal basic income, the age of labor, the limits of education, and much more.
Do you agree with Susskind’s theories about the future of work? Could we lead a meaningful life without work?