It is hard to avoid extremes when thinking about what the workplace in the age of AI will look like. From utopian offices where technologies assist in ‘unpleasant, unsafe, low paid, and boring’[i] tasks, to mass induced technological unemployment and a complete obsoletion of humans. Encountering a well-informed and balanced account is rare. Especially, in mainstream media where one finds alarmist articles like “Evidence that robots are winning the race for jobs”[ii] and “We’re so unprepared for the robot apocalypse”[iii].
On a previous entry, I spoke about technophobes[iv] and if you read it you might’ve thought it’s crazy that fear of technology exists. You might’ve thought “I’ve never felt that”. But the fear we have of technology rendering us irrelevant for the workplace, and of an AI replacing our job, is not far off technophobia. In fact, the term ‘technological unemployment’ was introduced by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1929 during the Great Depression[v]. Economists and sociologists have long acknowledged that improvements in technology could disrupt and transform economic relations; spurring fears and antagonisms between the worker and the machine[vi]. Already in 1963, a study reported computers gave subjects a “sense of inferiority”[vii]. The narratives and predictions we so fearfully consume are not new. And neither is the fear of becoming superfluous and dispensable.
These are the narratives you’ve heard:
Whereas previous industrials revolutions shifted human labour from the manufacturing industry to the service industry, presently, the shift is moving from automation in production to automation in service[viii]. Historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari coined the people whose jobs will be overtaken by AI the ‘useless class’. He argues that people will not just be unemployed, but unemployable because the knowledge acquired in their education will be irrelevant for the digital workplaces[ix]. Hence, ‘useless’. Futurist Martin Ford agrees with Harari and explains that the shift of an agricultural to an industrial economy was linear – following Newton’s law – but the shift from an industrial to a digital economy is exponential – following Moore’s law[x]. Can humans reinvent themselves rapidly enough to compete with highly intelligent algorithms that will be automating their jobs? We don’t know.
The counterattack arguments are these:
Technological advances will lead to the creation of new jobs and transformation is likely to be gradual not sudden. For instance, 19th century farmers were unemployed when agricultural processes were mechanised, but they eventually found work in factories that earned them higher wages[xi]. Previous unemployment warnings have been unfounded; the automation of industrial production processes in the 20th century led to warnings about ‘unprecedented economic and social disorder’ yet factory workers moved into services jobs[xii]. Historian Jill Lepore compares the discourses of futurists to that of omen-readers and argues that they borrow from science fiction nearly as frequently as from historical analyses to make convincing cases. In their expansive use of the word ‘robot’ they conflate steam-powered looms with electricity-driven industrial assemblers and AI. They compress time and lead to the presumption that work is given to the poor by the wealthy – from feudalism to capitalism – rather than an individual’s search for order, meaning and purpose.
From these two sides of the argument I just want you to know that it is nearly impossible to know whether AI, automation and robotics will lead to large-scale unemployment. The studies that predict full automation are overstated, susceptible to generalisations and often failing to appreciate the more nuanced complexities of jobs[xiii]. In Carl Frey and Michael Osborne’s 2013 Oxford study – which concluded that by 2033 47% of Western jobs would be automated – a school-bus driver’s occupation was ranked as ‘highly vulnerable’ to automation[xiv]. Although a self-driving school-bus is technically possible, locking twenty children for half an hour in a vehicle with no adult supervision is highly dubious.
What is possible is that a skill-bias that began in the early 1970s intensifies as a result of technological innovation in the workplace[xv]. Computerisation and technology uses have been exponentially increasing for the past three decades and, naturally, workplaces are favouring employees that are technologically literate. This doesn’t mean you have to know how to ‘code’ but at a more basic level you have to own a computer and have access to a stable internet connection. Various studies have proven that one of the factors that contributed to the declining labour market position of unskilled workers is a lack of technologically knowledge and access. Technologically illiterate individuals tend to be women, racial groups and ethnic minorities[xvi], and the same groups also tend to suffer from unemployment more often.
Can we slow down the pace at which AI is encroaching in the modern workplaces? No. Can we control the ways in which it encroaches so that it doesn’t deepen existing inequities? Yes. Technology will only generate more business opportunities for marginalised, disadvantaged and underprivileged groups if access, education and representation is respected.
[i] Kiesler, S. and Hinds, P., 2004. Introduction to This Special Issue on Human-Robot Interaction. Human–Computer Interaction, 19(1-2), pp.1-8.
[ii] Miller, C.C., 2017. Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs [Online]. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/upshot/evidence-that-robots-are-winning-the-race-for-american-jobs.html
[iii] Guo, J., 2017. We’re So Unprepared For The Robot Apocalypse [Online]. The Washington Post. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/30/were-so-unprepared-for-the-robot-apocalypse/?utm_term=.b3a2bd9e0f29
[iv] See entry at: https://iewomen.blogs.ie.edu/technophobic-women/
[v] Keynes, J.M., 1930. The collected writings of John Maynard Keynes. Vol.18, Activities 1922-1932, the end of reparations. London: London: Macmillan etc. for the Royal Economic Society.
[vi] Tucker, R.C., Marx, K. and Engels, F., 1978. The Marx-Engels reader. 2nd ed. ed. New York ; London: New York ; London : Norton.
[vii] Lee, R., 1970., Social Attitudes and The Computer Revolution. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34(1), pp.53-59.
[viii] Huang, M.-H. and Rust, R.T., 2018. Artificial Intelligence in Service. Journal of Service Research, 21(2), pp.155-172.
[ix] Harari, Y.N., 2015., Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. UK: Penguin Random House.
[x] Ford, M., 2015. The Rise Of The Robots. New York: Basic Book.
[xi] Lepore, J., 2019. Are Robots Competing For Your Job? [Online]. The New Yorker. Available from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/04/are-robots-competing-for-your-job [Accessed March 24th 2019]
[xii] Paus, E., 2018. Confronting Dystopia: The New Technological Revolution and the Future of Work. New York: Cornell University Press.
[xiii] Cass, O., 2018. The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America. New York: Encounter Books.
[xiv] Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M.A., 2017. The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 114, pp.254-280.
[xv] Acemoglu, D. and Autor, D., 2011. Skills, tasks and technologies: Implications for employment and earnings. Acemoglu, D., 2002. Technology and Inequality. NBER Reporter, pp.12-17.
[xvi] Rodriguez, E., Allen, J.A., Frongillo, E.A. and Chandra, P., 1999. Unemployment, Depression, and Health: A Look at the African-American Community. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (1979-), 53(6), pp.335-342.