Nov 06 2023

Will AI Make Work Redundant?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is coming for your job. This, at least, is increasingly conventional wisdom, but I’m not so sure. In a recent interview, Elon Musk predicted that AI would “make paid work redundant.” I encountered the same opinion watching the latest season of Connections (yes, season 4 of Connections with James Burke), and I had the opportunity to interview James Burke about this (which will be on the next episode of the SGU). Many futurists are predicting a “post scarcity” or “post labor” world.

The idea, explored in many works of science fiction, is that a combination of AI and robotics will be able to do any labor required to run civilization. There would simply be no need for humans to engage in any sort of labor, freeing us for endless leisure. There is a lot of speculation and discussion about what such a world would look like. Will it be a paradise, where all our needs are met by attentive robots, and there is no poverty or want? Or will it be a dystopian nightmare, full of boredom, mindless distraction, a loss of any purpose, and a general atrophying of all human capability? Perhaps it will be both simultaneously. One vision has AI and robots taking care of all our physical needs, while we live our lives in virtual reality, gods of our own digital worlds.

It’s difficult to predict what a post-work world would look like. Partly this difficulty comes from not knowing the state of all other technology. Also, the people is that hypothetical future will not be us. They will exist generations from now, forged by social and technological changes we have not envisioned yet. Our current hand-wringing over what such a world will be like may seem quaint to them, like Medieval people trying to imagine our lives today.

But let’s get back to the first question – will this post-work world ever come to be? In the shorter term, is Musk right, will AI make paid labor redundant? There is no questions that automation (to use a term that combines AI, robotics, and potentially any machine-aided labor) can displace jobs. If automation allows 10 workers to be as productive as 100 workers, then 90 workers are out of a job. This is happening all the time. Entire industries see dramatic reductions in the number of workers employed due to automation.

For this reason workers have been complaining about losing their jobs to automation since the 19th century. The idea that robots will replace workers is at least a century old, and yet never seems to come true. The real impact of automatic on workers is somewhat more complex. Automatic does replace some workers in the short term, but increases productivity overall, which reduces the prices of things and increases wages for those who have jobs that complement the automation. This leads to more spending, which creates more jobs. This is the “creative destruction” of the marketplace. Overall, more jobs and more productive jobs are created, even though many workers lose their existing jobs in the short term.

But the distribution of benefits is not even. Low-skilled workers tend to lose out, while higher-skilled workers tend to make gains. Business owners and executives do really well, while skilled workers do OK, and lower skilled workers stagnate or lose ground. This contributes to income inequality as the fruits of automation are not shared equally. If this becomes extreme enough it can destabilize societies.

With the introduction of AI there is nothing fundamentally different about this process. Rather, the types of jobs that are displaced in the short term extend into more white collar jobs, from, say, low skilled jobs to medium skilled jobs. Now some intellectual jobs (rather than just manual labor) are threatened, like editors, graphic artists, coders, and legal assistants. I personally know someone who is an editor and was told, “Um, AI can do your job now, so you’re fired.”

The big question is – is this time different? Honestly, I don’t think so (at least not completely). If history is any guide, the same process will play out. Jobs that AI can do well will be displaced in the short term, but this will increase productivity overall, and eventually new jobs will be created. But reaching into middle-class educated jobs will likely have a more profound societal impact.

The “solution” to jobs being displaced by automation is that, in order to remain competitive, workers need higher education and training. There is a shrinking market for untrained low-skilled labor. Even if automation ultimately creates new jobs, those jobs are likely to require higher education and trained skills. As automation reaches into higher and higher skilled jobs, this process becomes more challenging. Further, as the pace of automation increases, it becomes more difficult to keep up with the need to constantly retrain.

This may be one of the biggest challenges for automation. We need to beef-up the infrastructure needed to educate and train the population to higher and higher levels to keep ahead of automation. Again, the question is, will this ultimately be a losing game? At some point will we just give up and accept the fact that a certain percentage of the population will not have employable skills? What then? Will there be a class of people who simply do not have to work, who have a “minimum basic income” (perhaps supplemented by some side-hustle)? Will this percentage slowly increase as automation continues to become more and more sophisticated?

I don’t think 100% of jobs will be eclipsed until we have artificial general intelligence combined with robots as capable as humans within the human sphere (not just on factory floors, but in the home). There is no reason to think we will not eventually get there. This will probably take longer than the techno-optimists predict, but it is a highly likely eventuality. What then?

Again – to many variables to really predict. People might do jobs not because they have to but because they want to. Ambition will likely push some people to want more than that minimum basic income. I imagine that the political class isn’t going anywhere. There are some things people will simply continue to do. Perhaps we will become a society of poets, artists, educators, entertainers, athletes, explorers, and diplomats. Also, we have to consider the fact that we will, to some degree, merge with AI and robotics.

If I had to guess, with all the usual caveats about predicting the future, I think everything will happen. Some people will just live on a granted income. Some will turn inward into a digital escape. Others will be highly productive in ways that humans can still compete with automation. And still others will become cyborgs. And likely some people will follow a path that we cannot even imagine today (or at least haven’t imagined yet). I don’t think there will be any simplistic AI apocalypse. I don’t think anything as simple as all the jobs going away will happen either. But we are increasingly living in a rapidly changing world. I do think we need to seriously think about our institutions and infrastructure and plan for accelerating automation. We need to support displaced workers, and we need to have robust retraining opportunities. We also need to make sure that accelerating automation isn’t exploited by a few to grab disproportionate wealth or power at the expense of everyone else. It will be tricky, but but have a lot of choices to make that can make a big difference in how this plays out.

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