If machines did all the work, then what would humans do?
It took roughly ten thousand years from writing to printing press, but only five hundred more to get into email. Clearly, we are at the dawn of the new age: the age of Artificial Intelligence.
Intelligence used to be the province of only humans, but it no longer is. A decade ago, robots still seemed pretty limited, and now, not so much. Today, the world is fast evolving and technological revolution is at the forefront. AI probes into the possibility of stimulating human intelligence into a machine, thus generating a plethora of possibilities. While AI has already managed to beat human champions in multiple domains, it might seem like it has mastered the highest level of intelligence.
It has certainly not.
Unlike the sci-fi films that display a dystopian vision of robots and cyborgs, the undermining fact is that such a future is wildly unrealistic. No company is ever going to build a Skynet! If AI poses a threat to society, diminished privacy and mass unemployment are the current rising concerns. After all, recent advances in technological developments indicate enormous workforce transitions, thus generating a fear that automation will destabilize the labour market, decrease wage growth, and decline economy as a whole.
Let us look at this phenomenon objectively:
Around the world, majorities are convinced that in less than a lifetime robots will be doing much of their work. Computers are to outperform humans in startling ways, thus supplanting workers and creating an ever-growing pool of unemployable humans who cannot compete with machines.
Now, this is a good news, not great perhaps; because, one — as the technology progresses towards a new age, it will constantly generate new opportunities, thus adding value to a country’s economic growth, and two — it gives us a chance to imagine a different society. A society where the creators, the discoverers and the performers are capable enough to talk, entertain and promote each other. But will that be enough?
It won’t be enough. There are some really dreadful challenges that we’re going to face as we head deeper into the future. The first is employment — it is tough to offer labour to an economy that is full of machines. Workers, especially millions of middle-class workers will find it difficult to achieve a stable income. This can generate economic inequality. The second is the societal challenge. The societal challenge that comes along inequality will deserve some attention, which means, the fortune of a well-educated professional manager and that of a low-level white-collar worker will be severely diverged.
What do we do about these challenges then?
Since the robots in the short term are not going to take all of our jobs, the classic economic fundamentals are just going to work fine. In the short term, we can stimulate job growths by encouraging entrepreneurship, and capitalizing on infrastructure because the robots today still aren’t good at building bridges! Additionally, sectors like healthcare and education have a high element of human engagement that cannot be easily automated. Attracting more talent towards jobs in entertainment, arts, and sports are highly interpersonal and creative in nature, and may not be immediately vulnerable to automation.
But in the longer term, if we are moving into a world that is light on labour and heavy on technology (and we are) then we might as well have to consider some radical intervention. This could include offering a guaranteed minimum income, better policymaking (like insurance), accelerating innovation and skill training, and adapting to newer forms of work.
Disruptions to working lives are inevitable, and there will be insecurities. We will probably be fascinated by the prospect of robots taking over our jobs. But if we focus on the things that we can’t really control, we risk neglecting the things we can. The rest is how bosses, workers and governments will respond to these challenges that will determine if this new working landscape lives up to its enormous promise. Because in the end jobs can die, but work cannot!