When it comes to technological advancement, the dystopians always make more noise. It’s 2017 and it seems that the warning bells signalling the potential threats of advanced artificial intelligence and how powerful this technology can become are ringing across media headlines on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong – these are important conversations to have and they are important warning bells to be cognisant of. However, speculating about long-term eventualities can often distract from the very real short-term societal shifts that are taking place under our very noses – because of digitisation, automation and basic machine learning.
These trends will fundamentally change the way that we work in the next two decades. Companies and governments will have to answer the question: “What happens when automation and artificial intelligence renders large parts of the workforce obsolete?”
That’s a deliberately provocative question that reigns supreme in popular media. It has an embedded assumption that human labour will become obsolete, an assumption often based on a brand of techno-pessimism that sells more newspapers than its optimistic counterpart ever could.
If we look back over the last few centuries, we’ve seen the same story play out again and again. Farming machinery augments and eventually replaces human labour. Henry Ford’s automobiles disrupt the horse-and-cart, rendering an entire transport system obsolete. The machine assembly line replaces its human version, emptying factories of almost all their unskilled workers. These, which were huge innovations in their time, caused the same panic that we hear today. What will all those people do? How will they feed their families? Are their employers ultimately responsible for finding the solution or is this the modern form of Darwinism?
But, every time, these innovations open the doors for new industries, jobs and value to be created, improving human living conditions and, ultimately, pushing our species forward. Over a long-enough timeframe it becomes clear that the advancements are incredibly beneficial, even though certain segments of the population can be left behind – essentially, because they couldn’t adapt fast enough. In each case, more jobs and industries have been created than ever before, however, these were all unforeseen at the time.
We face another one of those turning points now – the so-called fourth industrial revolution. And so, true to form, the panic begins again.
This time, however, it feels more serious. There are some very strong arguments that articulate why the rise of artificial intelligence is a unique case. The core of these arguments pivots around the premise that instead of replacing human manual labour, artificial intelligence threatens to replace the human intelligence that makes us unique and has placed us at the top of the food chain.
But we should not confuse this type of general artificial intelligence with the automation and digitisation that will impact us in the next decade. We must be careful not to be seduced by buzzwords.
I was greatly encouraged by the discussions that took place as part of a programme run by an organisation called the ‘Do School’. The organisation is a think tank and incubator in Berlin that invites young people from around the world to their campus to brainstorm, ideate and prototype ideas surrounding a range of topics that face the world today. The programme I was a part of focused on the future of work and invited 15 young people from around the world to try to come up with solutions for the threats that automation poses to the workforce.
Initially, I expected that we would discuss the usual solutions that get bandied about – upskilling, learning to code, transitioning into different roles etc. But what was really refreshing was the thoughtfulness that echoed in those discussions about how we can scale our ‘humanity’.
If I had to summarise the sentiment, it was that we would be naïve and short-sighted to expect the human workforce to continue to compete with machines on the kinds of tasks that machines are designed for – routine work, calculations, pattern recognition, etc. That claim is uncontroversial in technology circles. Once you accept that reality, the conversation often veers off track– sliding into despair as people start to plan for a post-human world.
However, if you turn the thinking around and change your language – you realise that there are opportunities. By the nature of the shift, tasks that require the human touch will become ever more valuable. Human creativity, relationship-based service, or a range of other tasks that require empathy, judgment, intuition or an intrinsic understanding of human behaviour all become increasingly rare and valuable. And this doesn’t even begin to cover designing, creating and maintaining the machines themselves.
With this perspective, instead of surrendering to the idea that the rise of AI is an inescapable path towards human obsolescence (the inherent assumption in my initial question), AI may in fact liberate us from the types of tasks that we didn’t really enjoy doing anyway and free up time and resources to scale the human-centric tasks to a level we have never seen before.
For example, what if a company’s human resources department wasn’t bogged down by the administrative tasks of dealing with payroll, leave forms, medical aid and the like, but could rather focus all their energy on proactive care for their employees – looking after their physical and mental health. Thinking about AI in this way allows a radical paradigm shift about what a human resources department can be and allows those employees (who went into HR because they wanted to interact with people) to do more of the tasks that they find fulfilling.
We can and do create the future that we want to live in. AI does not have a predetermined fate – regardless of what the singularity-devotees will say.
The future of work depends on what world we want to live in
It’s an opportunity, not a death sentence.
by Barry Morisse