Feb 24 2023

The Future of (Unpaid) Work

If we think of the top inventions that had a positive impact on human society and our quality of life most lists would contain things like the printing press, the wheel, or the computer. One invention that should be on everyone’s list but is easy to overlook is – the washing machine. Throughout history there were a variety of methods for washing clothes, all laborious and time consuming. Today the same task is accomplished by hitting a few buttons. The impact of unpaid domestic work was profound – it changed society. Other inventions that relieved domestic tasks had a similar positive impact – indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and even pre-sliced bread.

When researching futurism for my latest book, in fact, you can see the impact of these technological developments on futurism itself. Futurists from 100 years ago mainly focused on how future technology with further relieve drudgery and increase leisure time, because that was the technological revolution they were living through. Technology was all about convenience and leisure. Future airlines would be like luxury liners with maximized comfort (if they only knew). Everything had to be automated, from brushing your teeth to drying your hands.

Despite how massively overstated it was by past futurists, reduced drudgery and freeing up time is a result of technological advance, even if we choose to fill that time with other work. In the last decade or so there has been a lot of discussion about the future of work, because it feels as if we are about to go through another revolution of similar impact to the industrial and electrical revolutions, this one involving robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Anxiety over robots taking our jobs is at least have a century old. Robots have displaced workers, but the general trend has been to create new jobs to replace displaced ones and to make workers more productive.

The addition of AI to robotics, however, has many people worried that this time it will be different, with permanently displaced workers. I am not pessimistic – I think it makes more sense that the same thing will happen, we will see creative destruction with the ultimate effect that workers are more productive and engaged in work that is less physically demanding.

But a lot of the discussion has focused on paid work, without much attention to unpaid domestic work. We collectively spend about as much time doing unpaid work as we do paid work, although in every society the burden of unpaid domestic work falls disproportionately on women (about 2.6 times). But are we at the beginning of the Roomba revolution? Robotics and automation powered by AI have the potential to take over or reduce the burden of many such tasks.

A recent study surveyed 65 AI experts to estimate the percentage of current unpaid domestic work that will be automated in the future. They found:

On average our experts predicted that 39 percent of the time spent on a domestic task will be automatable within ten years.

OK, not quite half. That is a small effect compared to the washing machine, but cutting domestic work by almost 40% just in the next decade is profound. Interestingly experts from countries, like Japan, that have a greater disparity in domestic work done by women vs men had more pessimistic projections. So experts who were more likely to be personally engaged in domestic work were more optimistic.

Tasks they examined ranged from cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, pet care, shopping, child care, and adult care. The impact on the cooking and cleaning tasks was estimated in the 50-60% range while in the caring tasks more in the 20-30% range. Perhaps this is accurate for the next 10 years, but I do think that in the slightly longer term, 20-30 years, having AI powered robots that can care for a demented adult or watch over a child may be possible. A living caregiver will just need to be on standby, but can divert their attention to other tasks.

I have a dog, two cats, and a blue-tongued skink. Most of my pet care involves feeding. We have an invisible fence for the dog. The cats are indoors so there is a lot of kitty litter management. The skink is very low maintenance, mostly cleaning his tank.  Automated food dispensers are certainly plausible, as are devices to reduce maintenance on kitty litter. If you don’t have a yard than walking pets is perhaps the biggest time suck. Of course, when one of my cats got sick, shoving a pill down his throat twice a day was by far the biggest burden (fortunately he is now healthy).

Long term I predict the most significant change in pet care will be robotic pets. Such pets could be virtually maintenance-free – they don’t require feeding, they don’t produce waste, and they are clean. They could even be a work reliever, doubling as care-givers and even helping with some domestic tasks.

Robots in the home, other than things like a Roomba, is actually quite tricky. The home is a chaotic and complex environment full of soft and breakable stuff. Would you really trust a robot will all your china? The question is, what is the low hanging fruit? Having a low profile vacuum guided around the house by AI definitely works. Something that could automatically sort and fold clothing after it comes out of the wash would be a huge benefit.

I feel like we have already gone through the shopping revolution, with online shopping and the ability to have just about anything, including groceries, delivered to your home. But there is still some room for improvement here. Having RFID chips in products so that you can just walk out of a store with them would make things a little faster.

The study in question was mainly focused on which domestic tasks are “automatable” – not which ones will be automatic. That’s a good approach, because it is hard to predict how people will accept and interact with future technology. Cooking is a great example. A lot of aspects of cooking have been automated or made simpler, but many people choose to do thing by hand. It’s a ritual, and it can affect the outcome and the overall enjoyment. There are concerns other than convenience that people may prioritize. Keurigs are convenient but some people enjoy spending time making that perfect cup of coffee.

But clearly the overall trend is toward more automation, more convenience, and less drudgery. It’s just not a straight line, and the details can be hard to predict.

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