In the early 19th century, most of the world’s population was employed on manual, back-breaking agricultural work – then automation increased the productivity of farmers more than tenfold whilst reducing their numbers from being the majority of the workforce to less than 2% – and the many outplaced moved on to new, better-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector
In the 20th century, automation increased the productivity of those manufacturing workers whilst reducing their number to less than 15% so that, today, knowledge-based and service industries employ over 80% of G7 workforces
Now, in the 21st century, automation in the form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is beginning to transform the way we work and live, especially in the way we produce both goods and services and have to meet increasing expectations for response times and product and service quality
According to James Walker, a researcher at the CPS – Centre for Policy Studies in Western Australia – “AI uses algorithms that learn from raw perceptual data in a process loosely comparable to that of a human infant” – except they have vastly more storage capacity
Robots are increasingly performing more of the functions and tasks we workers did up until only a few years ago, many of which were a drag on morale, some leading to burnout viz:
- Replace human jobs – in peacetime, manual repetitive jobs, low-level routine administration work, lawyers, professors, accountants, transport driving (trams, tractors and trains), process controlling using sensors – in wars, compare WW1 when millions of men and women were used a cannon-fodder with a possible WW3 when it will be fought by a few hundred elite special forces aided by drones, missiles, GPS and cyberbombs
- Replace human tasks – especially those causing much inefficiency and found in most businesses – issuing and personalising sales and marketing emails, booking meetings, listing actions after meetings, assigning work, copying information between systems, preparing reports for execs, file management, routine processes, legal contract analyses
- Augment human jobs – aka human-computer symbiosis – advisory support, search and selection of information, voice and text translation, fraud detection
- Create new human jobs – higher reasoning, critical thinking, complex problem-solving – knowledge learning, creative design, new health and lifestyles services – algorithm data scientists, robotics engineers
- Conduct new tasks humans cannot do – data analysis for advanced insights – e.g. cures for diseases – working at incredible speeds and levels of precision with vast volumes of data that are well beyond human capabilities
Clearly, as Viktor Shvets, Global Equity Strategist at Macquarie Group, Australia, points out: “There’s a declining return on humans because of the inferior capacity of humans to achieve productivity growth compared to machines”
McKinsey believe 5% of current occupations could be automated entirely and some 60% have at least 30% of their activities automated – and these %’s will only rise over time
The Economist goes further: “As machines become better at doing things, the human role in generating faster productivity growth will converge towards zero – at that point, so long as society expects everyone to work, all spending in the economy will go towards services for which it is crucial that productivity does NOT grow, in order to provide jobs for everyone – society could seemingly be both characterised by technological abundance and paralysed by (Baumol’s) cost disease”
But why be so dismal when AI can remove so much drudgery from our working lives?
Some optimists, like technologist Nick Bostrom, even believe AI is: “The last invention the human race will ever need”
These are early AI days, however – questions still being asked include:
- How can we make sure robots’ only purpose would be to serve humans and our environment and make human lives better?
- Should robots decide on their own without approval from humans?
- Should we allow robots to fight autonomously in future wars?
- What will most humans do if most of their work is done by robots – be idle or creative – write, paint or compose better – create new things, go to new places and/ or make the environment cleaner – enjoy more time in leisure and recreation?
- In particular, what will the many uncreative, lounge lizards do given having so much more free time will be a big challenge not only for them but society as a whole?
In addition, some serious players have already offered words of caution about the future role of AI which will have to be addressed, somehow:
- Elon Musk, the US billionaire, developer of PayPal, owner of Tesla electric cars and founder of the Space X interplanetary rocket company says: “We need to colonise Mars so we’ll have a bolt-hole if AI goes rogue and turns on humanity – AI scientists may have perfectly good intentions but still produce something evil by accident, capable of destroying mankind”
- Professor Stephen Hawking said: “The development of full AI, which can match or surpass humans, could spell the end of the human race – it would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate
Overall, however, the productivity gains when most human work is done by AI will be enormous – its potential is unlimited, and unstoppable
Tasks we humans would not do, except for money, will be mostly automated – tasks we already like to do, for no money, will come to dominate our lives
The future is bright indeed
Welcome to the new unworking class