Will future employment just be for robots?

Futurologist is not exactly the sort of job any careers advisor would have on their list of options for young and impressionable school leavers. It wasn’t really on Gerd Leonhard’s mind either. In 1985, the year Madonna released Like a Virgin and Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple, Leonhard graduated from Boston’s Berkley College of Music to pursue a career as a professional guitar player and producer.

Seventeen years later, after discovering the internet, moving to San Francisco and working with start-ups, Leonhard moved back to Europe (he was born in Bonn, Germany) to develop his interest in new and developing technology trends. He’s written four books which are free to download, has launched and currently hosts The Future Show and is a speaker at events across the world.

There’s an infectious enthusiasm about Leonhard when he speaks. He clearly loves his subject, littering his views with references and examples. Watching his film you get pulled along, whether or not you believe in what he is saying or whether you think ‘hang on, that’s a bit far-fetched’.

The bottom line is, now more than ever before he has plenty of material to work with. Recently Professor Stephen Hawking talked about the robot apocalypse, where machines with artificial intelligence (AI) will one day take over from the human race. For a futurologist this is surely gold dust. So what does Leonhard think? Are we all going to lose are jobs? Is the human race really doomed?

“A lot of people are confusing the idea that robotics may be science fiction because it’s complex and they are not seeing this curve is exponential. Forget about Hollywood scenes of dystopian AI dominance. That is based on fear. In fact we will be freed up from a lot of jobs that no one wants to do. We will have to think collectively about how we cope with this otherwise we will have huge structural issues with kids unemployed and so on.”

It’s an interesting thought. Yes, Hollywood is very guilty of creating the skewed vision but I guess that’s its job, to entertain and over emphasise. In fact, entertainment is coming thick and fast with AI-related storylines at the moment with films such as Ex Machina and TV dramas such as Humans. So what’s the reality?

“Technology is creating abundance, first with music, films and TV and now with airlines and hotel rooms. Technology is making this efficient and now ultra-efficient so, inevitably, the price of services really drops.”

Do you have an example?

“When you have call centres with 20,000 people you can charge a lot of money but when it's just five robots doing 10,000 transactions the price goes down.” In an abundant society this eventually destroys the whole concept of the basic construct of capitalism. “We pay for rare things because they are scarce, and there are jobs to provide those scarce things so basically, in 15 years or so, we are looking at a decline of the capitalist system based on consumption. The idea of a circular or sustainable economy becomes a new kind of default.”


Won’t this change the way people approach work and ultimately change education?

“We are no longer going to be defining ourselves by work, defining our value through work and monetising our value through work. It’s an ending paradigm. When you have everything done in a state of abundance it’s difficult to monetise because everything can be done at next to zero cost.”

Isn’t that a bit mind-blowing for people?

“We have to decouple the idea of work meaning making a living. There will probably be a guaranteed minimum income. There will be a different definition of how you get paid. The logic changes when you have total automation.”

Is there a rough timeline for this?

“We have a rough guideline, what has been referred to as singularity, the time when the capacity of a computer matches the human brain and that’s roughly 2027. It will probably take a little bit longer, maybe another 15 years. This is just a mechanical brain not an emotional one. The time when computers become sentient? That's far away. By 2030 automation will lead to disruption in pretty much every sector of society. By 2040 you are looking at the redefinition of what work is.”

So where will the new jobs be? Repairing robots?

“There will be many new jobs in two areas. One is anything to do with technology. This will include developing interfaces, design, science and so on. This will explode as clearly we will need more of it. The second is anything to do with humanity. If humanity has more time and resources and we’ve solved energy, food and water issues, then it’s all about cooking, storytelling, imagination entertainment, entrepreneurship and so on.” 

Leonhard points out that in Osborne and Frey’s paper on the future of jobs the biggest growth area for jobs is ‘others’. People, he adds, will be inventing jobs. That will be the primary mission.

“Fifteen years from now there will be jobs [and today] we have no idea what they will be,” continues Leonhard.

He is clearly an optimist, which is a useful antidote to the fear generated through entertainment and sensationalist headlines. Although he adds that governments need to think carefully about how they deal with this, about how they take responsibility, he sees a largely enjoyable society. It’s difficult though to not see the downside. It’s how we are wired. Humans, that is. In his film intro Leonhard asks the question;

“Is it creepy or useful, heaven or hell? What will it mean to be a human in a world where everyone will need to be amplified by algorithms?”

If you are not sure, just ask Google.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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