What is the role of the workers when their work is done by AI?

Artificial Intelligence captures our imagination because it’s the stuff of childhood fantasy stories – cars that can drive themselves, machines that can talk to us, robots that can substitute for teachers or nurses. It’s exciting because it’s what the future looked like in 20th century movies, and here we are, alive and breathing in the very same future.

It’s arrived in good time. Ever since slavery was abolished, we’ve been looking for someone to do the unpleasant things we would rather not. Maybe if the computers are there to do the brunt work, humans can focus on better quality tasks.

Machines are better employees anyway – they don’t get emotional and make mistakes because they didn’t have breakfast this morning. They are typically not fussy about work being unfulfilling and their lives lacking meaning (assuming robots don’t turn melancholiclike Marvinfrom The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

There are things computers can do which humans can’t – like prevent potential plane crashes using cameras and sensors, find patterns in the clicks on your Facebook advertisements, or even diagnose heart disease in itsvery early stages.

The likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, however,say that AI poses an “existential threat” to civilisation. It’s all rainbows and sunshine, they believe, until the robots rebel against their creators (in the manner of Frankenstein). More frightening, however, is the prospect of AI making humans dispensable.

We live in a society where we hire men to sit in elevators and press buttons. There aren’t 5 billion jobs in the world for the 5 billion workers; of course, there is going to be unemployment. The best we can do is disguise it – we move the vacant people out of their homes and let them be vacant pulling meaningless shifts as security guards for stores in malls. We pay them to wish customers Good Afternoons and Good Evenings.

What becomes of the drivers when the cars can drive themselves? They can’t call strikes because the robots who are at work aren’t programmed to feel resentment at the failure of social security systems. At best, they form a Humans’ Union and hold demonstrations against the scientists, and while they’re at it, the governments too.

This isn’t new. History moves in circles; with every technological revolution, we fear machines will replace us. If Charles Dickens’ accounts are anything to go by, there is a reason to be afraid. The Industrial Revolution back in the 18th century threw a large of a part the working class into the black hole of unemployment. The workers were in high supply and low demand, so they didn’t hold much bargaining power. They took whatever they were given – fourteen-hour workdays, working hazards, paltry basements for homes – all at the minimum wage, only to be discarded by the factory if they got injured in a work accident.

Adjustment takes time, but people find other jobs. When steam engines and machinery came along, they brought growth in economic activity that was previously unimaginable. All subsequent generations – in England and across the world – have been better off since.

The AI revolution is no different. AI replaces jobs, not work. Technological innovation may displace workers, but it also creates employment. It only changes the kind of skill that is in demand. We need fewer men in assembly lines, but we need more engineers to design automated factories.

We would never have created fans if we worried about the unemployment of hand-fan makers. This is the way of the world, it renders a lot of things obsolete as it develops. But are we not happier and more comfortable with electric fans? Now the electric fan companies hire more people than there ever were hand-fan makers.

Every industry that drowns makes space for a more specialised industry. There are going to be more designers and more app developers, but fewer book-keepers and assemblers of goods.

It’s not difficult to imagine that several jobs today will soon be wiped out thanks to technology. In similar fashion, the great economist Keynes correctly predicted that there would be fewer farmers in employment by the end of the 20th century – but he did not see coming the number of people who would instead be working in banks and film-making.

So, we are right in assuming that we will soon stop paying employees for routine tasks that machines can do. However, the children in primary schools today will, in a couple of decades, be doing jobs that don’t yet exist.

There is some work that can never be taught to machines – as suggests the Polanyi paradox – because we don’t fully understand it ourselves. Painters can’t explain the process of inspiration that led to their million-dollar pieces, so how can they automate it? Humans know more than they can tell, and that will keep them indispensable.

Humans are emotional and irrational, so we need humans as our therapists to understand why we still miss abusive past relationships. Humans are daydreamers, so we need them to create stories – for our movies, our music, and our art. Humans are opinionated, so only they can debate the best political process to take society forward.

Maybe with the advent of AI, humankind can finally invest time in doing work that only it can, and that is our USP. As beautifully summarised by Charlie Chaplin in his speech as The Great Dictator –

“You are not machines… You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts.”

Maybe AI is what we workers need to take up the role of being more human.

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