The future of work is the topic on everyone’s lips. We’ve gone from worrying about whether our children will have jobs to worrying about our own place in the workforce. The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics has been at the upper end of twenty first century predictions.
Everyone wants to know whether automation will trigger a massive cut in jobs. This is not academic. Previous predictions that automation would hit employment in the 1970s and 1980s led some countries such as France to move to shorter working weeks and effectively ration available work. The consequences have been large with lost productivity and languishing economic performance which, in turn, has created the very unemployment they were trying to avoid.
The automation of human labour is not new. The development of cotton mills in the industrial revolution and Henry Ford’s production line of the early twentieth century are perfect examples. Both reduced the labour required per unit of production but increased demand caused a net increase in jobs.
The Luddites in the early days of the nineteenth century worried about the impact of automaton and showed their opposition by smashing machines. No lesser technologist than Bill Gates recently said “Right now if a human worker does, you know, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. We can interpret his comments as a proposed brake on machines through taxation, a modern equivalent to the machine smashing of the Luddites.
The rise of artificial intelligence is just a continuation of computer-driven automation since the 1970s. We have seen many jobs displaced in that time, yet more work has been created. Word processing has displaced the typing pool. Workflow processing has all but eliminated traditional clerical roles. Yet there are more jobs today than ever before. At about this point many people say “more and better” jobs. It is the latter half, “better” that needs closer examination.
Our jobs can increasingly be described in terms of whether we’re working “on”, “with” or “for” machines.
Those of us who work “on” machines are shaping what they do, we are defining the problems they solve and identifying the questions that need answers. Examples of working “on” the machines include programming, design and data science. These are activities that require an insight that is not within the scope of this second generation of artificial intelligence (see Your insight might protect your job). I would argue that there are the same or slightly more of these jobs than in the past and that the jobs are, largely, as good as ever.
The jobs that work “with” the machines are giving many of their day-to-day repetitive activities to artificial intelligence and traditional technology. Teachers are increasingly handing over much of the content creation and learning interaction to technology and students are largely responding well. This is true at all levels of schooling, from pre-school to university. Teachers are, though, more important than ever, for example see Universities disrupted but not displaced.
Finally, the largest pool of increased employment is working “for” the machines. These are the jobs that are scheduled and managed by technology. At the extreme are the “Mechanical Turks” and other crowd workers who do piecework for a few cents a job. Also in this category are rideshare drivers, online retailing pickers and increasingly some of the more manual health roles. Done well, these jobs can fit into a flexible working arrangement that suits many lifestyles.
To put this third category of jobs into perspective, consider what actually happened with the early nineteenth century cotton mills and then again with the early twentieth century production lines. Far from destroying jobs, more labour than ever before was needed. But as anyone who has watched a period drama or read a Dickensian novel knows, these were not pleasant places to work. Workers were regularly injured or killed, rights were almost non-existent and worker was played-off against worker.
The future of work could see more of these jobs that work “for” machines created with the emphasis on dehumanising and optimising scheduling to suit the needs of technology and employers. Working remotely, or largely instructed by computer, it’s possible that we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past.
But history also gives us reason for optimism. Within a few decades the cotton mills and production lines became much more desirable places to spend a working day. In our far more competitive world, many companies are realising that there is a commercial advantage to eliminating the several decades gap between creating new job and making them desirable. Those companies are winning the war for talent.
At the end of the day, business production of goods and services is for the consumption of humans. The modern services economy means customers are interacting with workers more than ever, and want it to be a social and positive experience. Even the production of goods is increasingly social with the rise of shorter supply chains and a booming “craft” movement of artisan products ranging from food to furniture. Businesses that want to win in this world need employees who are going to portray their brand in a good light and for that their day-to-day work needs to be life affirming.
With a focus on the right things, there is an opportunity for the automation of the coming years to lead to both more and better jobs.