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Human Resources

Humanity will invent new jobs long before AI "steals" them all

If you nipped back a hundred or so years and attempted to explain to the people of the time just how much would be automated by 2016 – fear, joy or indignation aside – one repeated response would probably be: “Well, what will people do all day then?”

Ditto, if you propelled those exact same farmers, cooks and saddle-makers, slap-bang into the present day and had them wander round an office, you may well find them continuing to ask the same question.

Many salaried positions, in the west at least, don’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure most of us have been in the position where some stranger has explained what they do all day – and no matter how comprehensively they try – you have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

This is because most modern work isn’t tangible. Nothing gets made. Hardly anyone tills the land with their bare hands, sweeps chimneys, or sews material into wearable clothes. And oddly the more obvious the work is, the less highly paid it tends to be, and less socially respected it is.  

Forward thinkers of the past foresaw some of these changes. In 1930 the Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren [PDF], which predicted massive technological advance. The key difference is that he believed these developments would lead to people working less: 15-hours a week was his estimate.

“But Keynes also got it spectacularly wrong,” as the Guardian put it in 2008. “Rising living standards have not led to people deciding that they can satisfy their material desires through a much truncated working week.”

Technological progress means that we work more. It seems there isn’t a month that goes by when a study isn’t released about the sheer levels of unpaid overtime that goes on – especially in the UK and US. Yet what are these extra hours spent doing? Certainly stuff that would have been totally unthinkable to our ancestors.

I mean, imagine trying to explain to a blacksmith the necessity of a 10pm conference call to fit with Singapore where you’re required to say nothing but your name, or the gruelling 24/7 grind of emailing round the time zones. I reckon he would look at you with complete bewilderment. Yet this is many workers’ daily reality. And it brings us full circle to the predictions of today’s pundits.  

“We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” Moshe Vardi told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently. “I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”

But how, may I ask, is this different from what people said in the past? There is always a certain base level of unemployed. But although most of the “old-fashioned” jobs are totally obsolete, society has still gone right ahead and invented new ones. This is why the whole notion that Artificial Intelligence will take all our work sounds like fallacy to me. Sure some jobs will disappear but other ones will emerge to take their place.

After all, work has been evolving for centuries. Ever since we didn’t have to spend all day searching for food we’ve freed up a stack of time. Yet we’ve always found industrious ways to fill it. And those individuals that do manage to “steal a living” doing not much at all, receive a very negative reaction on the whole.

This comes down to a subtle psychological point that seems to underpin most societies. This dictates that children are raised on the value of hard work. Learning is highly prized and it is important that everything is earned. The message is if there is nothing objectively to do, something busy must be made-up.

And so even if there may be no “real” work available – and there arguably hasn’t been for decades – the trick will be to invent something. Personally, I can’t see this trend stopping anytime soon. It just seems too fundamental.

 

Also read:

Office 2021: Why robots won’t end drudgery or steal our jobs


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