There will be no more jobs in the future...and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report that 400 to 800 million workers worldwide could be displaced by automation by 2030. Interestingly, back in 1931 during the worst year of the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes published Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren and predicted that by 2030, people would work no more than 15 hours a week, devoting the rest of their time to leisure and culture.
While the prospect of people losing jobs to robots and artificial intelligence may sound harrowing, if Keynes was right, it’s not necessarily a bad thing: instead of a future of scarcity and despair, we may well be heralding a new age of abundance.
Humans are constantly evolving with technological advancement
Human history is all about progress and technology advancement: Earth is estimated to be about 4.54 billion years old, and the earliest human civilizations are barely 6,000 years old. Industrialization only really began in the 1800s, and in just 200 years, we have progressed from steam engines to data packets that can travel at 300,000 km/s – or 7 times around the globe in the same time it takes for you to blink.
Every technological revolution significantly changes the patterns of human life, and as a result, affects our evolutionary cycle. With every technological leap, we replaced countless jobs by inventing ways to make them more productive and efficient: agriculture replaced hunter-gatherers, steam-powered machines replaced teams of workers in factories during the First Industrial Revolution, and a typical automated teller machine (ATM) today can do the job of an entire bank branch.
It does seem that while we humans have a knack for making our own jobs redundant, every major invention and technological leap does bring about greater economic growth, and dramatically improves the quality of our lives. Productivity is a key source of economic growth, and it is likely that an AI-enabled future will bring great abundance, not scarcity, based on what history has taught us. With higher levels of productivity, a given economy is able to produce and consume increasingly more goods and services, income rises, and overall standards of living improve.
No jobs doesn’t mean no work in the future
Artificial intelligence (AI) is growing smarter: we’re still a long way off from Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) where machines can be just as smart as humans, but the degree of automating tasks both in the workplace and at home at today’s levels is already pretty impressive. For instance, chatbots are already a useful day-to-day work automation tool that helps to gather information and simulate real-time conversations with prospective customers, and freeing up time for more strategic level tasks of human workers.
The use of automation and AI can free up time for humans to be more productive instead of having to spend most of the workday on mundane and repetitive tasks, and can help with making other job tasks safer, such as the use of wielding robots over the exploitation of cheap labour.
The other side of the coin is, naturally, that there will be jobs today that will be replaced with robots and AI – it is therefore understandable that most people would envision a future where jobs are increasingly displaced by AI to be an ominous one. It doesn’t help that Hollywood paints apocalyptic scenes of humans versus machines in movies like The Matrix, Chappie or Terminator.
The reality is that AI is nothing like in the movies: we wouldn’t imagine Siri or Alexa to be threatening to kill us in our sleep, and it’s likely that a runaway AI programme with megalomaniac tendencies will only come about because its human creators designed it to do so. The ethics and morality of an AI-driven future is a philosophical issue more than a technological one, and should probably be discussed in a separate essay.
Jobs have always been replaced or re-designed in every industrial or technological revolution throughout human history; as technology continues to advance and progress, we may well see the disappearance of many traditional jobs. The good news is that every big leap actually makes us better off than previous decades or even centuries, and no jobs doesn’t mean no work – it just means that in a world where AI augments productivity and efficiency, the role of human workers are adjusted in terms of scope and the way they are compensated.
Brave new frontiers and the way forward
In a future without jobs, human workers will be free to pursue more creative and strategic tasks. McKinsey & Company has been studying just how automation will affect the way we work, and wrote that “[t]he hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning or creative work (18 percent)”.
In other words, machines are tactical but humans are strategic. With smart machines taking over “dumb” tasks, we may now be free to pursue work or reinvent roles that are atypical of the capitalist economy, such as the arts, community-building or humanitarian work.
In our current employment model, workers exchange labour for income (wages) at a fixed location, and for a fixed number of hours per week. This model is a remnant of the Industrial Revolution, and in a future of AI replacing human workers, this model is increasingly being seen as a low productivity model that is not very satisfying for both employees and employers.
In a smart world powered by AI, we are looking at an age of ‘smart working’: flexible work locations and work hours, a shift away from simply measuring inputs (hours worked) and outputs (deliverables) from a management standpoint, and even the way people get compensated for the work they do. We foresee a future where agility is key, and instead of the traditional work-for-wages exchange, we may well begin to see a world where human workers are all independent contractors and subcontractors making their income from service fees.
Organisations thus transform from rigid fixed-employment regimes to more flexible and agile networks of human workers through various arrangements, e.g. zero-hour contracting, freelancing etc. brought together through virtual workspaces to maximise their human capital potential, while tapping on the cost-efficiencies brought about through automation.
An AI-enabled future is one where there’s actually more work – not less – for human workers, with even higher productivity driving sustainable economic growth. It’s still not going to a utopian world though, because income discrepancies will widen further, which is why it is important for low-skilled workers to catch up with technology change and equip themselves with skills and competencies that allows them to engage in higher order job tasks not performed by their machine counterparts. Decoupling income from traditional work is one thing, ensuring workers are educated sufficiently to have relevant work skills in an automation-centric future is probably the most important aspect organisations and governments have to pay attention to if they want to ensure no one gets left behind.