The Future of Human Work
There are many theories on the balance of work and play. Some say that we work because we need food, shelter, and clothing (or other basic needs) and therefore work is a simple imperative. We work either to get the things we need directly (e.g. farming, hunting) or to get something we can trade for the things we need (e.g. money, gold). Of course, we know it’s not that simple. Many would say that they do what they do, not for money, but to fulfill some higher purpose, such as serving others or satisfying intellectual curiosity. Regardless of the reason, we seem to have a fairly well-understood definition of work (in the employment sense). Nevertheless, the nature of work seems now, more than ever before, to be in question. What will our jobs look like in the near future? Will we work with, or for a robot agent of some sort? What happens when human jobs inevitably give way to automated agents that can do more work, more efficiently, and without rest or other human requirements?
The Dystopian View: Our jobs are doomed!
Of course, it’s possible to take a very negative view of the future of work. Many pundits warn about the future of jobs that involve driving things (because of autonomous self-driving vehicles), making things (because of increasingly adept industrial robots), and even selling things (because of increasingly intelligent advertising and “chat bot” technology.) These concerns are entirely valid if we make one important presumption: that the demand for the task performed by humans remains relatively unchanged while the ability to meet that demand through automation continues to improve. I would ask, however, when in history has mankind ever been satisfied with being satisfied?
Let’s take autonomous driving, as an example. Certainly, I will use cruise control and other features when driving long distances just as much (probably more) than the next person. I nevertheless adore a slow drive along the beach in summer, or a brisk drive on a curvy country road (within the constraints of posted speed limits, of course!) I don’t want a machine to do these things for me because it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. Recently, the GPS in my car directed me down a road that dead-ended at a solid concrete wall where a recent highway overpass had been built. Using my human brain, I quickly decided not to proceed as directed but to find a way out. These are of course trivial examples, but the broader point remains that we want our vehicles to do things that are mundane or otherwise unappealing, but not everything. Furthermore, as we are freed up from the monotony of driving, one would hope that we will find ways to use this time for broader purpose. (For example, I like to study language CDs or listen to podcasts.)
Others, of course, do not see driving simply as a way of getting from one place to another. It is in fact among the most common professions – driving things. What happens to those who have all or part of their job displaced by an autonomous vehicle? This is no simple question, but certainly we have seen similar displacement during industrialization, as other tasks were replaced with automation. In all of those cases, people eventually found other things to do, and in many cases things, which were safer or more fulfilling. I am not indifferent to the plight of loss of jobs to automation, rather I simply point out that this phenomenon is far from new.
How we respond to the replacement of jobs with automation is as much about opportunity as it is about marginalization. We must find ways to use the liberated human capacity to address the human condition itself, improving the lives of those displaced, as well as those whom they serve in performance of new jobs and in new sectors.
The Utopian View: We don’t need jobs!
The converse of the dystopian argument is the equally extremist position that in a future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced automation, machines will serve our every need. There seems little argument that certain jobs, such as caring for the sick and elderly, counseling the aggrieved, and creating art that inspires the hearts and minds of others, are safe at least for the time being. One can imagine certain aspects of each of these occupations being performed by some machine equivalent, but would we really want that? Personally, I would much prefer a human opera singer and a human massage therapist. That said, it is worth considering a world where the vast majority of current jobs no longer exist.
Within the lifetime of our grandparents, there were many jobs, such as blacksmith, cooper, cartwright, and even radio tube technician, that now only exist in very small comparison to their numbers in days of old. Where did the rest of the blacksmiths go? Where did the tube technicians go? One might argue that former blacksmiths might be designing undercarriage systems for maglev trains and that the tube technicians are integrating technology for the Internet of Things. Just as trains that float on a moving magnetic cushion and little bits of automation that communicate with an intelligent orchestration agent would have seemed unthinkable to our forefathers, so there will be occupations of tomorrow that simply don’t exist even in concept today. Therefore, if we believe that we will not need jobs, we must believe that we will not create amazing new technology and that we will not find new solutions to age-old problems. These new technologies and methods will require new human stewards, at least until those tasks also become commonplace to the technology of the future.
Of course, there is a perfectly valid argument that in the future, automation will advance to the point where we don’t have to work as hard as we do today. I certainly hope so. What will we do with all of that free time? It is my hope that we will spend at least some of it addressing the many unsolved or under-solved problems of today.
Making time available to humans through automation is nothing new. As long as we have an insatiable desire to take on new problems and explore new opportunities, there should be no fear of time liberated from mundane tasks.
Advice to Our Future Selves: Please be careful!
There are many ways in which advancing automation can continue. Clearly some views involve marginalization of others, elimination of much-needed employment, and effacing the human capacity to interact in meaningful ways. Just as many other views abound where a bright promising future delivers solutions to major problems of today. It seems we live at a critical point at which many eventualities are possible.
I would therefore suggest at least the following morsels of advice to our future selves:
- Avoid complacency. The most significant deleterious impacts of technology in history have come when few were looking. We should pay careful attention to phenomena such as AI goal modification to ensure that we understand what our technology is doing on our behalf and otherwise.
- Eschew obfuscation. Many dangers lie underneath overly complicated language. Einstein said that we should make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. I couldn’t agree more.
- Make new mistakes. It is important that we learn from our mistakes. Recently we have experienced repeat instances of cyber attacks, hacking, and unintended use of products and systems that involve high degrees of automation. In our rush to market, we must not rush so fast that we fail to learn.
- Keep digging. It is easy to leave innovation to others, or to adopt a fast-follower posture, especially in a rapidly advancing technology arena. I would caution that the cost of doing nothing is not nothing. In many cases, competition emerges from highly unlikely quarters and malfeasance emerges from complacency.
- Focus on the greater good. There is a huge temptation to adopt products and services that serve an immediate need, while leaving significant opportunity by the wayside due to complexity or a lack of common understanding of a broader good. The synergies that formerly came from inventions being improved upon by others is, in recent times, undermined by a rush to market and oversimplification brought about by using readily-available tools or data sets that don’t quite fit the intended purpose.
Regardless of our view of the future of work and the technology-enabled workplace, it is important that we focus on captured learnings and careful attention to the direction of progress. We may never have a better opportunity.
I look at this view of the future of work and the technology-enabled workplace as neither complete nor comprehensive. It is intentionally so. There are as many arguments for and against any of the views of our future at this point in history. Therefore, any attempt to reach definitive conclusion would be folly. What matters, it seems, is that we are mindful of the panoply of opportunity (and risk) facing the workplace today. What matters is that we use this opportunity to improve and to prosper.