• Thilak Iyer

Are we heading for a World without Work?

With every mechanization and automation there was a fear that it will cause large-scale unemployment. Most of it was ill-founded. For example, when operations were computerized in the 20th century, much of manual work became obsolete and many of those manual jobs had to be let go. However, on the other hand many computer jobs were created to develop programs, maintain computers, replace systems etc. and not to forget the jobs for analysis, project management etc.

Same is true with other large-scale disruptions such as offset printing, power looms, industrial robots. As industrial robots were deployed in factories, it took away some heavy-lifting but created many jobs in designing, manufacturing and maintaining these robots.

And it was much easier for workers to move from an operational job to a coding job with a bit of training. Similarly, it was easy for an Agriculture worker to move to a factory when Agriculture was mechanized. Ditto for factory workers when factory robots came in.

As we are in the midst of another large scale revolution by way of AI and machine learning, most of us are saying – “Been there done that”. It will be the same. AI and ML will make our lives easier but will create jobs that are more meaningful and less menial.

And why not. If you go back to January 2020 (before the world knew much about Corona), the unemployment was at historic lows in most of the developed countries particularly in the US.

Is it true? Will the world tackle pervasive AI/ML as it has done the earlier technology disruptions such as computerization, agriculture automation, cars etc. Will we be the wagon driver who took up car driving or will we be the horse who became obsolete on the roads.

Yuval Harari explored the possibility of “A world without work” in his 2018 book “21 lessons for the 21st century”. And just a 4 weeks ago Daniel Susskind, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford published his book “A world without work”.

To be sure, these are not dooms-day predictions but may actually turn out to be true.

As AI continues to improve, many of the tasks/work that were hitherto supposed to require levels of creativity and thinking that only humans could do, are increasingly being done by AI and machines. Take for example, financial advice.

Many of us already have AI based Financial Advisers that are augmented by human intervention. AI-enabled chatbots are becoming increasingly better, thus reducing human interventions. AI based networked “Doctors” are already better at diagnosis than some of the human doctors and can even do more precise surgeries. And not to forget where it all started - with machines beating humans in chess, jeopardy etc. Now, we don’t even have to choose music that we like – we are starting to “like” what the music engine is picking for us. And the list goes on.

One area that humans had an edge was emotions – both emoting and understanding – and reacting to it. Even here, AI based machines are already doing better, what with the humanoid Sophia emoting so well. And they continue to learn – not just individually – but collectively.

So what? As has been in the past, some jobs will go and people will re-skill themselves into the new jobs. As the buggy drivers moved to car drivers, lathe workers started working on CNC machines and robot maintenance, insurance claims worker re-skilled herself to become a computer operator.

And as we speak, there are many more jobs getting created in drone operations, cyber security and so on. Reskilling is actually the current buzzword. Every organization we know of, is focused on reskilling. Most employees are skilling themselves to remain relevant in new jobs.

Experts don’t believe that the above will be accomplished so easily.

We all know that the future will be machine-human collaboration. In fields ranging from airport security to banking to investments, human-AI combination will outperform humans by a margin and, that too inexpensively. This means that there will, of course, be jobs. But there will not be that many and they will require high level of expertise. The experts such as Yuval Harari predict employees will have to constantly reskill themselves and each reskilling will take more time - and it will be tiring and employees will lose their mental balance.

It is very much possible that we may head towards “a world without jobs” by 2050 or earlier. With this possibility in mind, many solutions are being suggested that include:

1.      Universal Basic Income to everyone. Some experiments have already happened in some countries.

2.      Slowing down the advent and progress of AI/machines etc. Is it even possible?

Whatever it is, it is very difficult to even imagine a world without jobs as our lives are so intertwined with work that many will loose identity and self-worth if there are no jobs.

The nation-states, governments, corporations and not-for-profits will have to come together to solve this problem. I truly believe that this is a problem with a magnitude of “Climate Change”. And it is not a hoax.

This article was published originally on LinkedIN by the same author at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/world-without-jobs-thilak-iyer/