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AI’s Gift: Rethinking the Purpose of Work

Artificial intelligence has been hailed as the last invention human beings will ever create. Universal basic income, once relegated to hushed conversations, is now being discussed openly in politics. Design thinking has entered mainstream business lexicon as the path to a more human-centered world. These three unique concepts will have a powerful impact on work in the coming decades.

The Catalyst: AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fantastic. It can diagnose cancer, create art, and learn 3,000 years worth of strategy from our most complex game in just three days. There is no single technology that will have as great a positive impact in our lifetime. But AI is not without its drawbacks. Data bias and a lack of ethical foundation present looming dangers. But the worry that AI may take our jobs consumes the most public attention.

The bulk of media coverage about the threat of AI displacing workers concentrates on low-skilled, monotonous work, whether driving or manufacturing. Indeed, these will be the first major industries affected in an extremely visible way. There are millions of truck drivers in the United States alone, not to mention the hundreds of thousands driving for ride-sharing companies. And ride-sharing companies do not mince words. They seek to remove the drivers. This is the logical conclusion for the path these companies have followed. However, AI-induced unemployment will not be limited to the working class.

Journalism is being automated. Medicine is being automated. Law is being automated for free. These automations are in their early stages, to be sure, but eventually people will lose jobs. And where these displaced workers will find future work is not certain. Regardless of how severe the long-term unemployment is, there will at least be short-term ramifications. This impending employment shift has led some to consider what role government should play if new jobs are slow to replace the old or, worse, if they are never replaced at all.

The Rationale

AI will displace millions of workers over the next decade or two. This is likely to disproportionately affect the poor and working classes. In the optimistic scenario, these people will retrain quickly and obtain employment elsewhere to avoid financial distress. In the pessimistic scenario, AI will be the first technology that destroys more jobs than it creates. The logic is that machines will be able to do every job better and for less money than we can. Both sides of this debate have cogent arguments:

But either way, the result in the near-to-medium term is the same: mass unemployment.

The Reaction: Government Involvement

Different policy positions could address this. Policy could encourage retraining programs or reform the education system. But the most fascinating (and radical) policy that may be pursued is universal basic income, or UBI for short. UBI has been gaining traction in recent years. From accidental experiments to Scandinavian politics to buy-in from Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, UBI has now entered public and political discourse in earnest. But what is it?

Universal Basic Income: The Basics

In brief, UBI is a set amount of money paid to each member of a particular group. The only requirement is that the recipients are members of the group in question (normally a state or country), hence the term universal. In it’s standard form, UBI is actually straightforward and extremely simple.

The idea is that once AI displaces workers, a government could distribute some of the AI-created wealth to help offset the loss of income many may face. Moreover, UBI could be used to ensure every child receives yearly payments that vest at age 18. This could pay for college, start a first business, or pay off debt. Whether the recipient is a child or adult, this would provide people a safety net while they retrain or allow them to quit working altogether. And it is this second outcome that has given many pause.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

If some people do not have to work to survive, wouldn’t a percentage of them basically just stop doing anything? And imagine giving advanced VR to these aimless people with no need to work. It is decades off, but a dystopian future in which people spend more time in VR than in reality seems far too feasible. But even if a majority of people did become lazy bums, would UBI still be worth it? Y Combinator founder Sam Altman seems to think so:

Maybe 90% of people will go smoke pot and play video games, but if 10% of the people go create incredible new products and services and new wealth, that’s still a huge net win.

While that logic makes sense from an economic level, it is flawed on a human level. The problem is that for those 90 percent, life will be less meaningful. Many of us derive great meaning from the work we do. And younger generations are increasingly drawn to companies that have a defined purpose beyond making money. So while it is a lofty ideal to free people from depravity, we would lose a valuable source of purpose in our lives. If UBI were adopted, we would need to use it as an opportunity to redefine what it means to work and live.

It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.” — Jim Collins

Our Opportunity: Designing the World We Deserve

Times of massive political and technological upheaval — such as the period we are entering — create fertile ground for building a new fabric of society. AI will free us from repetitive tasks and automate much of today’s manual and intellectual labor. This will cause the greatest shift in human history. In the coming decades, we have the opportunity to reform our conceptions of work, leisure, and purpose. But we humans dislike change and will seek stability and routine as soon as we can find it again. So we will have only a brief window.

Once our first habits are cemented in an AI/UBI world, we will become complacent with the new business as usual. One need only read Animal Farm to see the truth of this. We will transition back to maintenance mode and stop driving for a more ideal end state.

“‘Tis with governments as with individuals, first impressions and early habits give a lasting bias to the temper and character.” — Alexander Hamilton, letter from Phocion

And our best hope at redefining purpose in this brief window may be design thinking, which is a process for understanding people, asking the right questions, encouraging outside-the-box thinking, and iterating through solutions quickly. Crucially, the process does not begin by searching for solutions to problems, but rather by crafting various perspectives to find the underlying problems. The final result is human-centered products, services, and ideas.

And there is no problem more in need of a human-centered solution than finding purpose in an AI/UBI–powered world. Design thinking will not guarantee a perfect future, but it will guarantee a more empathetic one.

That is the gift of AI: our best chance to redefine our purpose.