The keep-calm-and-adapt approach is as much grounded in history as future-gazing, explains Harry Armstrong, head of futures at Nesta. Society is stuck in a cycle where every few decades we have “exactly the same conversation” about automation, with dire predictions about mass unemployment that never come to pass, he says. “Partly because it’s such an exciting idea, being able to capture something innately human in something artificial, it captures people’s imaginations and they kind of run with it.”
In fact, workplace evolution is almost always more gradual, he says: “With some occupations you get complete disruption, but that’s pretty rare. What normally happens is you’re getting tasks or aspects of jobs disappearing or shifting into other places … and the occupation then adapts to that, so it takes on other tasks, or it morphs and combines itself with another occupation. It’s only after a period of time that you see there’s been a bigger change.”
The argument that “this time is different” gets short shrift from Armstrong. Apparently people always say that too.
The meaning of work
But what if this time it’s different? There’s at least a case to be made. Robots are already eliminating jobs and depressing wages in the US according to its National Bureau of Economic Research. And their ability to mimic people is improving all the time. A chatbot called Eugene passed the so-called Turing Test back in 2014, successfully tricking at least some members of a panel of judges into thinking it was human. In 2016, a novel co-authored by a Japanese AI managed to get through the first stage of a literary competition.
Tim Dunlop, author of Why the Future is Workless, thinks changes in the workplace will mean more than simply swapping some skills for others. He sees the future of work as “a wicked problem on the same level as climate change”, and believes we are at the least in for a long and challenging transition period.
For Dunlop, the crucial question is not will they or won’t they take our jobs, but how the nature of our daily lives will change when there’s less need for us to work. It’s a question that alarms people, he says, but it’s also one with a potentially positive answer. Passing formal work over to robots could give humans more time to devote to undervalued activities like childcare, he says, with profound implications for how we interact with and judge our fellow humans.
“At the moment there’s paid work and we take that seriously. You have a job and you pay your taxes and that’s the measure of your worth as a citizen,” says Dunlop. “But we completely undervalue the informal economy — looking after kids, aged care, volunteering and community work. Without that, the formal economy of paid work collapses entirely, but we don’t value it.
“As technology integrates itself into the formal economy more, you theoretically open up the possibility of everybody doing less work … So it gives us an opportunity to reassess what we mean by work and what we value in a society.”
The assumption that paid work is fundamental to human experience is a modern construct, Dunlop adds. In the US, the idea of selling your labour was anathema to the founding fathers, who envisaged a nation of yeoman fathers, he says, while in Ancient Greece, “work was so badly thought of that a self-respecting citizen wouldn’t do it”.
How automatable are you?
Will building designers be next?
Humans are strangely sanguine about their job prospects in a future of AI. A US survey by the Pew Research Centre found that while two-thirds believe robots or computers will “definitely” or “probably” do most of the work currently done by humans within 50 years, 80% expect their own jobs to exist largely unchanged.
Among experts, it’s a different story. They may differ on when, but there is broad agreement that an “artificial general intelligence” is coming, able to perform any intellectual task that a human can, and that it will have profound implications for every aspect of our lives.
Even with currently demonstrated technology, about half of the activities in the global economy could be automated, according to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), which analysed the automation potential of more than 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations. MGI predicts that this will happen by 2055, give or take 20 years. More occupations will be changed rather than eliminated completely, but this change will be significant: about 60% of jobs consist of at least 30% automatable activities.
Physical activities in highly structured and predictable environments are ripe for automation, as are data collection and processing. But construction sites are unpredictable, which makes this industry less automatable (47%) than, say, manufacturing (60%) or accommodation and food services (73%).
Design professions such as architecture and engineering have a far lower automation potential, says MGI, “since they require application of specific expertise such as high-value engineering, which computers and robots are currently not able to do”.
In fact, the World Economic Forum, in its The Future of Jobs report, singled out these professions for expansion. It predicts that although 7.1 million jobs will be lost over the next five years, 2.1 million jobs will be created, mainly in more specialized “job families” such as Computer and Mathematical or Architecture and Engineering. Competition for talent in these areas will be fierce, and recruitment will be more difficult in 2020 than it is today. “If you are choosing your college degree today, STEM skills are a good bet,” say the report’s authors, “but most importantly you will need to learn and specialize throughout your lifetime.”
The point is not that we should return to the past, but that our attitudes are malleable. “We have to stop thinking in terms of good work and bad work,” he says. “I think once we break down those sorts of barriers, people are more likely to think, actually, I don’t need to prove my worth and gain meaning simply by doing paid work. There’s other ways I can feel fulfilled and contribute to society.”
There’s just one problem. Swapping gruelling hours in the office for time with loved ones may sound lovely, but those gruelling hours are how we pay the bills. If we’re all going to work less, we’ll also need new ways of affording life.
It’s one reason why support is growing for an overhaul of social security, and specifically for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), under which all citizens would receive an unconditional stipend each month from the state. A number of countries are experimenting with limited forms of the idea, including Finland. In January 2017, it launched a trial under which 2,000 unemployed citizens receive €560 per month for two years.
One argument is that predictability of income would give people the confidence to seek out new opportunities. Another is that, in a world of higher productivity but lower employment, we need new mechanisms for redistributing national income. Dunlop even suggests such payouts could be considered rightful compensation for the free data we supply to companies like Google and Facebook.
Heikki Hiilamo, professor of social policy at Helsinki University and close observer of the Finnish project, says growing interest in UBI reflects a recognition that existing welfare structures are unfit for the uncertainties of the modern labour market. “This idea of long-term employment with one employer over your whole career doesn’t exist any more. It’s why we need to rethink social protection.” When it comes to middle classes displaced by automation, however, he says it’s too early to tell if it’s the right policy instrument.
There are other concerns too. Anna Coote, principal fellow at the UK-based New Economics Foundation, for example, has argued that a basic income could weaken pressure on employers to provide decent pay and secure jobs, in effect letting them “off the hook”.