As some may have noticed, I’ve been musing of late about the likely future social and economic effects of the increasingly rapid and interconnected development of ICT, artificial intelligence and robotics. This article is a bit silly in some respects but makes some useful points succinctly:
Speaking at the World Business Forum in Sydney on Wednesday, Ms Erickson said new technologies, changing demographics and the move to “knowledge work” would soon lead to an overhaul of workplace arrangements on par with the shift from craft-based industries to mass production lines during the industrial revolution.
Just as in the ‘80s and ‘90s the lower cost of communication from the introduction of computers allowed companies to radically restructure and outsource non-core activities, the same is about to happen thanks to the “lower cost of co-ordination” today, she believes. …
Just as machines have taken over industrial work, it won’t be long before they start taking over “knowledge work”, she argues.
Thinking machines are likely to take over a lot of the work we previously thought could only be done by humans. IBM’s Watson, for example, has gone from winning at Jeopardy to delivering world-class cancer treatment.
The two areas least likely to be taken over are decision-making and relationship-building.
“That is, to make choices when the options are all pretty good, the options are rational, and when the decisions you have to make are not based on fact but on values, ethics or strategic issues,” she said.
“And to connect, to form relationships. There I think people will continue to have important roles. Those are the people you’re going to be supporting — the rest of it is going to go to the machines.”
I’m not at all sure that high level subjective decision-making will remain beyond the capacity of AI for very long, although it will be wise to reserve those sorts of decisions for humans for other reasons, as Dr Dave Bowman discovers in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As I have suggested in the context of “ride share” ICT systems like Uber, the world’s transportation industry will almost certainly be revolutionised within the next decade or so, with most human jobs eliminated. Other areas may take a bit longer, but it is likely that a very significant proportion of “knowledge work” jobs will have been taken over by machines in the next 30 years or so.
In past phases of the industrial revolution and post-industrial era, technological advances have in the long run always spawned new and better employment opportunities, but it is difficult to see how that will happen in the near future as machines increasingly take over roles involving significant elements of cognitive capacity. That may well mean that a significant proportion of people, at least in advanced economies like Australia, will be unable to obtain remunerative marketplace employment. That is the context for my tax reform suggestions in a recent post where I proposed a generous Negative Income Tax (universal basic income) funded by significant taxes on high income earners, capital gains, land and inheritance/death duties. The immediate self-interest of the owners of capital suggests that this sort of proposal is unlikely to get very far as an achievable political reality until it becomes self-evident that some such choice is unavoidable, but it would be wise to begin a serious discussion well before then.
Capitalism itself will be under threat when a large proportion of consumers are unable to afford the products and services that business creates because they can’t get a paying job. It will become necessary to redefine the nature of productive work and underpin consumption (and indeed human society) with a universal basic income that is independent of any individual’s ability to generate an income in the capitalist marketplace. If the forces of capital fail to adapt to that reality they will certainly face a potential revolutionary situation as desperate citizens fight for survival. Responses in the wake of the Great Depression, when advanced Western economies belatedly saw the wisdom of enacting a reasonably comprehensive social security safety net, suggest that our societies will have the capacity to adapt to meet such a situation in the future, though probably not until it’s staring us in the face to the extent where not even the most obtuse and greedy corporate CEO can deny the necessity.