Spanish journalist Miguel Ángel Criado of El País asked me a few questions for an article (pdf)he has written about the impact of the internet on employment, as part of the European REIsearch initiative.
In replying, I have tried to synthesize some of the hot topics about the future of work in a world where more and more tasks will be carried out by machines and artificial intelligence. Given that for many of us, our job defines us, the impact on society of the changing nature of work is not just going to be economic.
Below, my answers in full. I didn’t imagine for a moment that Miguel Ángel would publish them, but as some of my readers might have noticed, this topic is close to my heart :-)
Q. Out of the process of destruction and creation being created by new technologies, what will be the outcome in terms of jobs: more, less or the same?
A. It depends on what you understand by employment. As machines not only learn to do more things, but also much better than people (drive a vehicle, handle a tool, assemble things in an assembly line, process language, etc.) and at a lower cost, it’s obvious that many jobs are going to disappear. However, what we have to think about is that we are entering a time where many people will do things that today we would not consider employment.
We’ve seen this before: I had real difficulties explaining to my wife’s grandfather, aged, that the on the days I stayed at home in front of my computer I was actually working. He looked at me suspiciously, and after a while he asked me again, “Aren’t you going to work?” For him, work is inseparable from going to a certain place and “doing” something, and that sitting in front of a screen “could not be work,” worried because he thought his granddaughter had married a guy who was apparently very lazy who did not leave the house to go to work and who spent the day in front of a screen … surely “playing at something”. How many things will our children do that we wouldn’t consider “work” or “employment”?
To reach the point where we do what we want because machine do all the boring stuff, we need to change our social model. Otherwise we will see an increasing percentage of people excluded and an increasingly high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, which is socially and politically unsustainable. When the concept of employment or work changes cease to be part of our identity, the whole social model changes. When I think of future models of society, I cannot help reaching the same conclusion: a model based on unconditional basic income will be indispensable to give people the independence to do whatever they want to do, allowing them to spend a period of their life focusing on acquiring certain skills — free from the pressure of earning a wage as we know it today — while at other times they can focus on doing something that allows them to earn additional income (income would be unconditional) allowing them to differentiate themselves, raise their standard of living or tick a few things off their bucket list.
When we decouple work from the need to earn a living, and when we eliminate the dreadful culture of subsidy (The state gives you this because you need it, but will take it away if you find work), we will find ourselves living in a very different social model and, for me, one that makes a lot more sense. I see more and more evidence that we are moving toward a model in which unconditional basic income will be a central pillar, and I see it supported by people who believe in a more just redistribution of wealth as well as from true liberals who want to simplify our current systems of aid and subsidies. Universal basic income looks neither right nor left, but forward.
Q. In the same way that running water left water carriers out of a job, or the car put blacksmiths out of work; who will be the winners and losers in the coming years?
A. I believe the losers will be those who work to live, people who simply go to work every day to perform tasks that do not satisfy them at all, but they need to do to get money that is essential. These types of jobs will largely disappear and be replaced by machines whenever there is an economic interest to make them more efficient and competitive. All administrative jobs, for example, will disappear. Archeology, on the other hand, will not, because although it is a very interesting discipline, it will take us a long time to find an economic model that justifies not carrying out archeology by people, even though we can build machines capable of exploring the soil and digging to extract a fossil. Most people who “live to work”, in the sense that we like our work to the extent that we might even continue doing it even if we were not paid for it, will find new ways to do what we are passionate about, and will use machines and algorithms to improve what we do.
Q. The first wave of technological innovation came from the United States. Do you think that Europe can lead the second wave (IoT, IA, robotics, IoE …)?
A. I am not sure that Europe has a chance to lead anything, because it simply is not looking to do so. I am clear that the United States was interested, but then an idiot took over the country, a man unable to understand technology, a climate change denier intent on sabotaging the country and putting people back on assembly lines and miners underground to dig coal. No country is capable of overcoming such stupidity, and the United States will have lost its world leadership before Trump leaves the White House.
It’s also clear to me that China has a huge incentive to become the biggest driver of intelligent automation, machine learning and robotics, because it is the only way to keep its economic model sustainable. It has been moving in this direction for years, and because it is not a democracy, can carry out this transformation in an infinitely more efficient way. I’m not saying it’s the right way to go about things, and would never want to live in such a country, but these factors undoubtedly allow China’s rulers to undertake ambitious changes without opposition. And Europe? Europe is too concerned about maintaining the status quo and already existing models and so simply refuses to explore new ones, which would mean leaving its comfort zone. I seriously doubt whether Europe today is capable of leading in anything.
(En español, aquí)