Will you thank the robot that takes your job?
How can we ensure a smoother transition to the post-work economy?
As futurists we are frequently asked for advice about the much-hyped forecasts suggesting that a huge number of today’s jobs could disappear through artificial intelligence (AI) and automation over the next ten to twenty years. These studies routinely report that robots are coming for our jobs, and that only a fraction of those displaced will find opportunities in the highly automated growth industries of the future. Ouch. Our answer is that this need not be a problem if we can wean ourselves off the notion of having a job as being the ultimate goal and responsibility of every individual of working age.
We are on the verge of a productivity revolution fuelled by AI and its disruptive cousins such as robotics, cloud computing, big data, blockchain, digital currencies, machine learning, 3D/4D printing, hyperconnectivity, the Internet of Everything (IoE). Beyond the world of information technology, we’re also on the verge of exponential improvements in areas such as super-fast Hyperloop transport, flying vehicles, laboratory grown meat, vertical farming, synthetic biology, new materials, and nanotechnology. Collectively, these science and technology developments will enable fundamental changes in the way we do literally everything. An entirely new economic order could emerge which means that jobs and work shift from being necessities to become just one of the many optional pastimes that we might pursue for human connection, personal fulfilment and intellectual development.
Of course, we know this is easier said than done. Current social structures such as education, training, the welfare state, the benefits system, and the philosophical underpinnings of most political parties are clearly not fit for purpose in the jobless future. This may actually be a blessing in disguise if we give ourselves permission to consider the bigger picture and the longer-term future.
There are two reasons why robots taking jobs would be the best thing that could actually happen. They both relate to safeguarding social stability in the wake of the full potential impacts of the drastic transformation of productivity and work, which has been underway for some time already. To us, the objective is to preserve humanity and support people to survive a transition from a way of life that requires good employment in a steady job, to a future where ‘making a living’ may be completely disconnected from the notion of work.
Firstly, the decline in steady employment would provide a strong rationale for implementing a layer of social protection that ensures we can feed our families and buy the goods and services being produced by the machines. The most commonly mooted ideas at present are to provide a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Basic Services (UBS) to literally every citizen. Some free marketeers, think tanks and consultants are already baulking at the notion of universality – although most are conceding that a form of conditional or means tested provision may be necessary. The UBI model would offer a regular basic cash payment for life to the people who’ve been made redundant because robots have taken their jobs. Meanwhile, UBS could supplement housing, food, and other specific living expenses. It seems clear to us that whether or not it is UBI / UBS, some form of social programmes proactively designed for the impending needs created by widespread work automation are an essential buffer for the human impacts of the AI revolution.
If we look at historical examples, the UK’s public welfare system and the National Health Service (NHS) were designed within the context of the nation’s specific needs at a particular time in history. By all accounts, they have worked. At this moment, when the robo-writing is on the wall, it is critical to act in favour of the social safety net needed to circumvent the potential negative implications of AI. Preparation for a scenario where jobs have disappeared and may not be coming back in the same numbers is vital.
Of course, it is also true that the implementation AI and these other disruptive developments will transform current sectors and spawn industries – enabling new job roles and creating employment opportunities. However, while the prospect is exciting, the OECD warns that three jobs might be destroyed for every new one created. We also have no real sense of the rate at which new industries and businesses will be formed and hence how many new jobs and viable careers will emerge over the next ten to twenty years. This takes us to our next point: education.
Dramatic changes to the nature of work would require a complete revamping of school systems and adult education programmes everywhere. How do we justify to children, students, and learners everywhere the fact that the schools of today clearly do not offer the right context to learn the job skills of tomorrow? Especially when it is becoming clear that the jobs students are being trained for in law schools, accountancy courses, and even medical schools are no longer tickets to prosperity, or even basic job security. The reality is that children today are growing up in a world where robolawyers, roboaccountants and robosurgeons are not comic book superheroes, but the actual manifestation of technologies which are now becoming part of the wealth creation process and helping to shape the new economy.
Admittedly, for some job sectors, ‘technological unemployment’ is nothing new. From the advent of the steam engine and mechanisation of farming, through to the robotisation of car manufacturing, hard labour has always been automated through the use of technology. However, automation is now performing the intellectual, knowledge-based, and even relationship management work (also hard, but not as obvious) that humans used to do. Hence, school systems must wake up to the fact that the past trajectory of work and the model of current schooling are an inadequate and outdated basis on which to prepare a new generation to survive, much less thrive in tomorrow’s ‘less-work’ world.
The next generation needs new schools and schooling approaches to prepare them for the future, which will require new teaching candidates and new training, new curricula, new software and technical tools, and even new settings in which to generate a new approach to learning. We may find that the best schools of the future are alternatively virtual and hands-on, mixing realities in order to achieve new competencies that revolve around relationships, self-awareness, problem solving, and social skills. Student success in future schools might be judged by how well a person can maintain interpersonal relationships and friendships (at which we assume a robot would fall flat—we might be wrong), rather than know how to run spreadsheets or take inventory (which an AI could easily do, even today).
The reason for maintaining a high level of optimism about the prospects for our collective future is that even though the transition may be daunting, the eventual payoff could be massively rewarding. The win-win is a future where exploitative and meaningless jobs are discarded, and meaningful work, preceded by meaningful educational experiences, becomes the norm. Divorcing ‘work’ from ‘employment’, particularly the steady income from a job, calls for societal remedies timed to arrive so that we avoid despair and allow for the creation of a future more equitable than the present. The opportunity to build social security programmes that meet basic needs and educational systems which support personal development is too good to pass up. To that end, welcome robot overlords!
How do we encourage governments and local authorities to start experimenting with social support mechanisms and new schooling approaches?
What are the risks and potential benefits of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach rather than taking pre-emptive measures?
If you didn’t have to work at a job to earn your keep today, what would you do instead?
Do you think future generations will thank us for automating jobs away to robots, or find fault in those decisions?
What do you see as the risks and benefits of UBI and UBS?
The authors are futurists with Fast Future who specialise in studying and advising on the impacts of emerging change. Fast Future also publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com
Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, keynote speaker, author, and CEO of Fast Future where he helps clients develop and deliver transformative visions of the future. He is the editor and contributing author for The Future of Business, editor of Technology vs. Humanity, and co-editor of a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Steve Wells is the COO of Fast Future and an experienced Strategist, Futures Analyst, and Partnership Working Practitioner. He is a co-editor of The Future of Business, Technology vs. Humanity, and a forthcoming book on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business.
Alexandra Whittington is the foresight director at Fast Future. She is a futurist, writer, and faculty member on the Futures programme at the University of Houston. She is a contributor to The Future of Business and a co-editor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential–The Future of AI in Business and 50:50–Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.
Written by Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington