“From 2030 artificial intelligence will have taken over all the vital sectors of the economy.”
- Participant, The Future Society’s Global Civic Debate on ‘Governing the Rise of AI’
Since the agricultural revolution when humans settled into sedentary life, employment has defined one’s identity, aspiration and role in society. Occupations, from farm labourers to priests, defined social classes in all geographies. Even today, descendants of Britons are easily and instantaneously identified by their ancestors’ occupations, with surnames such as Cooper, Baker, Smith or Miller.
Advances in AI and robotics forewarn that this relevance in human life may wane. Employment faces significant automation and displacement from AI and robotics. Such a significant departure from the past leads society to confront a pertinent question: what is the role of humans in a post-work world? How will our identities and roles in society change as professional work becomes less ubiquitous? How will we spend our time and find purpose?
Technologists, economists and historians have warned of large-scale unemployment, caused by automation from AI and other emerging technologies. While autonomous vehicles threaten to replace millions of drivers, Amazon swaps out humans for robots in warehouse and retail jobs. AI also automates high-skilled work, including ‘legal discovery’ in law firms, medical diagnostics, finance operations, and even creative tasks including music composition.
Nevertheless, there may be domains where humans or human-machine teams retain employment. Moreover, there are frictions in technology adoption within firms and the economy, such as knowledge gaps and regulatory uncertainty.
While The Oxford Martin School estimates 47% of US jobs are automatable, McKinsey & Company estimates a third of most jobs can be automated. As computing power and availability of data grow geometrically, and top young minds head to high-paying and prestigious jobs in AI, the field will develop rapidly and the threshold for which tasks and jobs are ‘automatable’ will fall. While timelines are as unpredictable as the course of technology, it is possible that many humans, if not a majority, may fail to out compete machines. A paradigm change in our economies may occur, bringing social shifts to individuals’ roles and identities in society.
Pathways to economic stability
Despite unemployment, a few converging factors may contribute to humans’ material security. New policies for income redistribution or social welfare policies may become relevant, such as a Universal Basic Income (UBI), ‘tax on robots’ or other schemes. UBI is an unconditional cash transfer, regardless of employment status, that is paid to all citizens with the aim to cover basic needs.
Moreover, emerging technologies have the potential to lower costs and increase access to goods and services. For example, new digital applications can provide on-the-spot, low-cost services including remote medical diagnostics, therapy chat-bots, education tools, law advice and more. Autonomous vehicles and drones have potential to dramatically reduce transport costs, time and resources. Virtual reality systems can provide cheaper in-home entertainment or education programs. 3D printing and nanotechnology may enable low-cost production of household goods. Enabled by sensors, AI can optimise energy usage to lower prices of critical inputs. Costs of electronic products may continue to fall, in line with ‘Moore’s Law’, the notion that computational power relative to cost has tended to double every 18 months.
More ‘disposable time’
If paid work is neither necessary nor available, and material needs are met, then humans may have more time for new activities. ‘Disposable time,’ or time left after work and household tasks, opens opportunities for more fulfilling lives.
How might people spend their time if the 40-hour work-week becomes a remnant of the past? Once humans’ basic needs are met, they can aspire to higher levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs including self-actualisation and self-fulfilment. People may explore new hobbies, creative activities, and even use AI to personalise recommendations from exciting virtual reality adventures to art lessons. People may spend more time travelling, exploring and learning.
They may volunteer, take care of each other, and spend more time with friends and family. At the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai, UC Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell acknowledged "When all the basic material needs of the world's population are met by a small number of humans running automated factories and machines providing those goods and services, we are going to be directly working with each other to improve each other's lives."
In a post-work society, we may see a re-negotiation and evolution of human values, norms and ethics. Today, Western and Anglo-Saxon cultures largely praise the value of educational, professional and career achievement as steps toward material security, prestige, personal fulfilment and pride. A post-work world may see shifts in values from individual material achievement to personal fulfilment, strong social ties, community service, care-taking, ethical behaviour, intellectual pursuits, or more. New ways to exhibit status may arise.
Identity in a post-work society
Without paid work, societal roles and identities may change. There can be inclusion of broader segments of the population, and new expectations or public perception of children, the elderly, women and men, the disabled, and people from different backgrounds and countries. Gender norms, long based on separation of family care and professional work, may shift and blur. Parents will no longer prioritise preparing children for professional success. The current crisis of elderly faced by many countries across the globe could also overturn as, in a post-work age, this demographic is viewed as valuable and not burdensome on society.
Whether the benefits from automation accrue to ordinary people will depend on governance, policy, and our commitment, across individuals, companies and states, to share and support each other. In the digital revolution, a reorientation towards humanity is necessary to ensure well-being and prosperity for all. If we coordinate to ensure material welfare, inclusion and access to technologies, people can take on unfettered roles and identity for the first time in human history, and unlock new passions, hobbies, deeper social ties as well as more personal fulfilment than ever before.
Concern about widespread unemployment has been raised by leading AI researchers including Andrew Ng (Google, Baidu, Stanford) and Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley), and leading economists including Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia), Jason Furman (Harvard), Daron Acemoglu, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (MIT), Laura Tyson (UC Berkeley) Robert Shiller (Yale), and most recently historian Yuval Noah Harari (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) among others.
 Top Factors Affecting AI Adoption Across the Economy. McKinsey Global Institute, A Future that Works, 2017. Also: Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute, (2017), State of AI survey.
 See summary of automation studies: James Manyika, Michael Chui, Mehdi Miremadi, Jacques Bughin, Katy George, Paul Willmott, and Martin Dewhurst, (2017), A future that works: automation, employment and productivity, McKinsey Global Institute, page 21.
Singularity.com, Moore’s Law: The Fifth Paradigm, http://www.singularity.com/charts/page67.html. Also see Singularity.com, Microprocessor cost per transistor cycle, 1975-2020. http://www.singularity.com/charts/page62.html.
Yolanda Lannquist is an AI Policy & Ethics Researcher at The Future Society. Her research focuses on managing the social and economic impact of AI including automation and the future of work. Yolanda has a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and Bachelors degrees in Economics and European Studies from Columbia University in New York City. Yolanda previously advised Fortune 500 multinationals on innovation and market entry strategy as a strategy consultant in Copenhagen. She also worked on digital trade and regulation at the US Embassy in Paris.
Arohi Jain is the Head of Research & Advisory at The Future Society. She is an economist with an acute interest in harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence to create positive social impact, especially in developing economies. Passionate about social change, Arohi previously held the position of Senior Strategist at a London based start-up consultancy, focusing on building global digital campaigns for non-profits. Arohi is a graduate of the University of Warwick, with a Bachelor of Science in Economics.
This week the Turing is publishing a series of guest blogs exploring different angles of #futuresofwork as well as hosting a Data Debate: The AI will see you now, with the British Library the evening of Thursday 1 November. Read our new landscaping report on the topic: Data Science, artificial intelligence and the futures of work commissioned by the Turing’s research programme in Economic Data Science. Later this autumn/winter the Turing will also be announcing a portfolio of research projects on 'The Changing Nature of Work' as part of the Turing-HSBC-ONS Economic Data Science Awards.