The whole conversation around automation and AI has become very repetitive. So one academic’s thoughts are a welcome change.
It’s a drama I’ve read so many times I think I’ve actually dreamt about it. It actually kind of has a classic four act structure.
Act one is the present day, and the inciting incident is hearing about the ever-increasing capabilities and pervasiveness of AI and automation.
Act two is where things get even more dire. You hear about how some jobs are going to disappear and make both unemployment and inequality rise. You also hear rumblings of a great villain emerging: the superintelligent demon that will kill us all (yes, this is a thing).
Act three sees the emergence of hope; there’s an opportunity within the fear. Afterall, technological changes have caused panic before, and humans did not get replaced. The same report that scares you tells you that “instead of removing [job] from existence we are going to see the role of [people with that job] change”. It also says we could be headed towards greater productivity and prosperity.
The final act is more neutral. Nothing is resolved but you are left with the impression that your job is probably safe, though it might change as you have an AI assistant take on your more routine tasks. You even read things like if you look at productivity levels in the US “the striking thing about automation… is how little of it there is”. The note the drama ends on is wariness. The future is uncertain, but we will persevere and perhaps even innovate ourselves towards a utopia.
The lack of change in this drama over the last three years is what makes the whole damn automation discussion so dull. Which is why it’s welcome when someone comes along and upends it all. Enter economics academic and former UK government adviser Dr Daniel Susskind.
In TED talks, his book A World Without Work and soon at the 2020 AHRI National Convention and Exhibition (early bird registrations are open!) he talks about… well, a world without work.
Myths and fallacies
There’s a couple of things in the above narrative that Susskind pokes a hole in but perhaps the most alarming one is the line about machines only taking on routine work, which is a belief that has comforted many. Who hasn’t thought, “my job needs that human touch”?
Looking to the past and at the agreement between economists, Susskind says that it’s true that technological advances replace a few jobs (lamplighters were once common) and many routine tasks, but they also tend to make people more productive. ATMs, for example, encouraged people to interact with banks more, which resulted in more work for bank employees.
Sounds good. Except that Susskind thinks we shouldn’t look to the past at all. The technology we have now is taking over non-routine tasks. You’ve already read about it, but often the lesson has been hidden.
He uses driving as an example. Satellite navigation systems fit the mould of a traditional technological improvement. By using them, professional drivers could be more productive, more quickly because they don’t need to memorise various routes in a new city. They can just follow directions. But the future is self-driving cars.
He covers this in his TED talk 3 myths about the future of work. He takes on the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ which is where you claim there is only so much work to be done and that if technology takes it away, it will not return. In reality becoming more productive can result in greater demand, and so creates more work (see the ATM example above).
Susskind says this line of thinking is itself flawed, and calls it the ‘lump of labour fallacy fallacy’.
“Today, satnav systems directly complement human beings. They make some human beings better drivers. But in the future, software is going to displace human beings from the driving seat, and these satnav systems, rather than complement human beings, will simply make these driverless cars more efficient, helping the machines instead.
“Here’s the mistake: it’s right to think that technological progress makes the lump of work to be done bigger. Some tasks become more valuable. New tasks have to be done. But it’s wrong to think that necessarily human beings will be best placed to perform those tasks.”
He calls this the superiority myth. In other words, it’s quite possible future technology will help machines get more work, not humans.
“In short, demand for tasks isn’t demand for human labor.”
Inequality and meaning
Susskind takes on a lot of other truisms of automation. But he can’t predict the future, so perhaps the most important way he disrupts the traditional narrative around automation isn’t in pointing out how it happens – it’s in taking time to offer ideas for dealing with it. Of particular interest is what he says about the meaningfulness of work and the ways technology will interact with economic equality.
On the former, he makes the pertinent point that a lot of people stress about what value humans will have if their work – which is such a crucial part of their identity – is taken away from them. He wonders “whether the academics and commentators who write fearfully about a world with less work are just mistakenly projecting the personal enjoyment they take from their jobs on to the experience of everyone else.”
Now it’s true that our society as it stands places great value on our careers (it’s usually the first thing a stranger will ask you), but if work really is dying then questioning and deconstructing that value sooner rather than later is crucial.
Turning to inequality, if Susskind’s prediction that the number of human workers diminishes and nothing else changes, it will be a boon to the rich and a plague on the poor. That’s because so many of the latter rely on their work for income and what you do will matter less than what you own.
The dynamics of this are already viewable. As the New York Times pointed out in its review of Susskind’s book: “In 1964, AT&T, the most valuable company in the United States, had 758,611 employees; Microsoft, the most valuable company in the United States until it was recently unseated by Amazon, employs just 144,000. Instagram had just 13 employees when Facebook acquired it for $1 billion in 2012.”
Susskind suggests that governments will have to take a firmer hand in wealth distribution, raises the prospect of a universal basic income (a common idea in this space), and even floats the idea of the state becoming a shareholder in very successful companies (so all citizens ‘own’ more valuable assets).
One of the themes of AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition this year is ethical leadership. Susskind, with his thoughts on how the impacts of automation will not affect each person equally, is a worthy addition to the lineup.