The Impact of AI on the Future of Work: Between Riddance and Deprivation (Part III)

By Leonhard Teichert, Summer Intern

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Work is changing! This is what we saw in Part II of this blog series. AI is already assisting, augmenting, and automating work procedures right now. Especially the latter causes the disappearance of certain professions and jobs. We ended up with the question: Will AI cause a struggle for work of man against machine? In this third part of the series, “The Future of Work”, we will explore this question and finally find answers for the remaining ones:

· Will there be new jobs?

· How does a fundamental change in work impact our society?

· How is it possible to grant a fair distribution of wealth in our society in which some own all the productive capacities and others own nothing?

· How to be prepared for the change?

Unfortunately, we are not able to predict the future. Therefore, we have to find a more reliable method than just guessing the answers to all these questions. One potential solution in trying to approach future issues could be scenario modeling. This is a tool often used in strategic foresight in order to estimate possible situations. In this blog we will sketch and explore three scenarios that simulate different ways AI could influence our model from Part II, helping us to understand how it could change our lives by changing work:

  1. Business as Usual — Just Another Revolution: This describes a world in which AI is indeed influencing work, but not significantly changing its function for individuals and society.
  2. A World Without Work — The Deprivation: This describes a world in which AI can deprive us of work and leaves us in a very dystopian future.
  3. No Need for Work — The Post-work Society: This one describes how AI can free us from work and how we can avoid the worst case scenario in (2).

Scenario (1): Business as Usual — It’s Just Another Revolution

A recent McKinsey study states that the demand for workers will increase by 21 to 33 percent until 2030. This corresponds to approximately 555 to 890 million jobs. This exceeds the number of AI-substituted jobs by 155 to 490 million [1]. That’s good news: There will be new jobs! At least in this scenario. But what kind of jobs will there be?

Startup advisor Steve Ardire asserts that the collaboration between man and machine will play an especially important role in the future of work [2]. As a WIRED article (“AI and the Future of Work”) points out, in this relationship humans will mainly function as Trainers and Explainers [3].

The task of the former will be to teach AI to recognize, adapt and reproduce human behavior in order to adjust them for interaction with humans. People who can illuminate black box algorithms (Explainers) will be needed in order to generate acceptance towards their decision recommendations. And in the case that a machine makes a mistake, somebody needs to analyze why failure was possible and how it will be avoided. According to the WIRED Article: “Trainers bring a human element to AI systems, but explainers will bridge the gap between the new systems and their human managers.”[3]

Besides these two particular examples, there will also be a higher demand for AI and software developers, designers, data architects and a bunch of other new jobs. We see that by substituting routine jobs with AI, the remaining work becomes a much more mental activity. In general, we can ascertain that future professions will tend to be more of a creative nature and will generate new opportunities for people to develop freely and lead an independent, meaningful life.

However, this does not influence the fact that work still plays a fundamental role in society. It is still an economic necessity to survive. People have to earn money in order to guarantee their subsistence. And people will also continue to base their identity on their work. The essence of the model developed in blog Part II is not significantly changing; at least regarding this scenario. Whatsoever, in this scenario, AI has the potential to provide new ways for individuals to live satisfied lives.

But in order to realize this positive potential, a change of skills, of our mindset, and therefore of the educational system is indispensable. Knowledge and intelligence are not a uniquely human domain anymore. In fact, machines have been beating us in this field for the past decade. So the focus of education must shift to typical human characteristics. Creativity, intuition, design thinking, emotion, social abilities, and common sense but also a different range of hard skills (like coding, data analysis) should be taught and refined in schools, in order to prepare future generations for the change of work.

The graphic illustrates how AI and a proper change of the educational system can generate more jobs and therefore a stronger social cohesion.

A Bitter Taste: Moravec’s Paradox

According to the great AI researcher Marvin Minsky and his well-known colleague Hans Moravec, hard tasks are easy to accomplish for computers while tasks that appear easy to us are difficult to accomplish for machines. This phenomenon is known as Moravec’s paradox [4]. Following this, machines can one day overtake what we perceive as sophisticated tasks and replace radiologists and Wall Street brokers (e.g. white collar jobs), way before they will substitute jobs that we think are low skilled such as a hairdresser or auto-mechanic.

But besides the question, if it will be the white or the blue collar jobs that will disappear first, the situation appears to be very similar to the one after the first industrial revolution. People back then were afraid that the invention of the steam machine would deprive them of their jobs. But we are right now experiencing the so-called fourth industrial revolution, and none of the three previous revolutions ever caused mass unemployment in the long term. In fact, more jobs were created by technological progress. So: Relax! It is just another revolution…

But what if AI has much more of an impact than just that? What if it is not simply another Revolution?

Scenario (2): A world without work — The Deprivation

The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once stated that modern technologies will lead to an, “…age of leisure and abundance”[5]. In an Aristotelian tradition, the population could achieve bliss through contemplation and living the bios theoretikos (which means: the theoretical life: a life devoted to science and philosophy). Machines would do the work that was done by slaves in Aristotle’s time and man would be free from work and can devote himself to his happiness.

As appealing as this may sound, the prevailing Hegelian notion of work that we are still following in certain respects is very paradoxical. On the one hand, work allows us to emancipate ourselves, on the other, it enslaves us. Work is necessary for mere survival, it is a central part of our social lives, and a key institution that shapes our identities. What about a world without work? What if we were not freed from work, but deprived of it?

Imagine a scenario where augmentation and assistance have become superfluous because work processes can be fully automated. Since machines are able to take on less routine tasks and are getting better in doing so with exponential growing velocity[6], it is quite justified to consider such a scenario. Machines would even be able to autonomously take over relevant decision-making. This disruptive development of AI could lead towards a future in which the need for work by humans is much reduced.

Of course, not every profession will be immediately made redundant by intelligent and autonomous machines. But especially unskilled workers and people with little flexibility will not be able to acquire the necessary skills to survive in a new labor market. The result is unemployment in large parts of the society; those who can not keep up will lose their jobs.

And preparing a new generation by the means of an adjusted educational system does not mean re-integrating unemployed workers. But due to the demographic change, those people that are not flexible enough to go to school again, are most likely to lose their jobs.

The most serious problem we will face in this scenario is that while there are too few jobs available, the population remains economically dependent on income: work is still a necessity to survive.

Consequently, working conditions will worsen. Human workers would only be employed if they would be cheaper than the implementation of AI. This could lead to extremely low wages for the workers. Due to the labor shortage, however, workers will accept these low wages, since something is better than nothing.

These developments would furthermore result in a division of society. The gap between rich and poor would continue to grow until at the end two groups face each other: the owners of technologies on one side, and those who own nothing — not even their ability to work is an asset anymore — on the other. The consequence is an increasingly unjust distribution of wealth in a society without work.

Besides economical concerns, this would destroy the social cohesion which is substantially created through work and is foundational for society [7]. It has been pointed out above that work also plays a fundamental role in personal development. We identify and define ourselves through our work. Not for nothing we ask at each party: “Hey! What are you doing professionally?” A world without work also means the loss of our identity.

The graphic illustrates how AI causes a lack of work. Consequently, work as a crucial factor of social cohesion as well as a guarantor for a regulated income is no longer included by the model. An unfair accumulation of assets will occur. All this finally leads to the disintegration of society. [“~$” represents “no monetary assets”].

Scenario (3): No need to work — A Post-Work Society

Imagine a future in which work is not an economic necessity anymore. Work would become a pure and voluntary expression of individuality. Machines are producing required goods and maintaining necessary structures from now on. How can we finally live this life of “leisure and abundance”?

To get there and to prevent an outcome like in scenario (2) it is necessary to establish a state of economic security. This means a state, in which each individual is guaranteed an appropriate livelihood, so it is not dependent on an income through work. The concession of economic hedging can also avoid at least the worst inequality in society.

A pivotal step in transforming our society into a post-work society and to overcome the necessity of work is the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI). But why should the rich pay for the poor? Why should they care? The counter question is: who is going to buy the products if nobody has an income?

So UBI seems to be a proper solution for some of the problems in a world without work. But a meaningful life has been significantly shaped by our work so far. If there is no work in which to derive meaning from, then society could still disintegrate, despite being financially protected by UBI. There has to be a rethink in society. The concept of work must be reassigned and a meaningful life must be able to be achieved differently, not through work. The paradigm of work must be replaced. We have to overcome the ideology of work as the source of good. This means going back to a conception of identity that is not based on what a person does for a living.

From the history of the work, one can clearly see that the idea of work as something meaningful and identity-creating, although is not very old, only with the Reformation marking its entrance into Western society. In most cultures before that, work was a mere means to another end and not nearly as important for social structures as today.

Therefore, in order to prevent the collapse of our social life, we should open ourselves again to the old, Aristotelian conception of work in order to be able to give meaning to our lives even without work. Aristotle identified eudaimonia (happiness) as the meaning of life, as the highest goal to aim for. He believed that it could only be achieved through a life of contemplation which he considers to be the “good life”.

One way to do so would be to define oneself through social services, political commitment and other forms of social interaction, instead of work. Strengthening social cohesion would be inherent in these activities, and thus they would be meaningful in any case [8].

We have to be prepared for a post-work world. Otherwise, we accept the possibility to end up with scenario (2).

The graphic illustrates how work became superfluous in an AI-driven world. The economic security is guaranteed by UBI. The social cohesion is stronger and generated by meaningful contribution to society. The paradigm of work was replaced by an Aristotelian conception of the good life.

The Fine Line between Riddance and Deprivation

AI could create more jobs. But it could likewise cause a large loss of employment. This again could be a good thing under an Aristotelian paradigm or could disintegrate society if we would follow a Hegelian conception of work.

Whether there will be a struggle between man against machine depends on the way we prepare for an AI-driven future. The same applies to the question, whether AI is going to free us from work, or will it deprive us of it. The positive impacts of AI on the future of work can only be realized if we at least consider the following three adjustments:

  1. We need to adapt our educational system in order to prepare future generations for future jobs.
  2. In a time of radical change (through AI) we need security; in particular, economic security. We need a Universal Basic Income to guarantee a livelihood for those who are indeed competing against machines and in consequence, lose their job.
  3. And we need to start thinking about an Aristotelian conception of life that is not based on work as the essential instrument of social coherence and fundament of identity.

The first step is to start to think and talk about the future of work and how AI is going to affect it. And if we do that properly, we will see that AI changes everything. And that can be in a positive or in a negative way. So start to think like a philosopher and share your thoughts to make an impact.