Robots taking over human society has long been fodder for dystopian sci-fi movies like Terminator, The Matrix, I Robot, and Westworld. These stories are so compelling in part because of the real possibility that it could happen.

What if I told you it is happening?

No, there aren’t any killer androids roaming the streets seeking to extinguish human existence (not yet…) But our jobs, and our identity as ‘workers’ are being radically changed by automation and artificial intelligence, and I don’t think society is prepared for it.

In a nutshell, “automation” or “artificial intelligence” refers to machinery that is used to replace human labour to make production more efficient, and in the eyes of the rich and powerful – more profitable.

Think algorithms used to determine if someone is a safe bet for a home loan. Without the substantial bill that comes with having to pay humans their wages you can see why there is significant investment in developing these technologies.

Machines have invaded our supermarkets, petrol stations, helplines, and air traffic control towers. There are A.I sports writers and self-driving Ubers. Even freight trucks can drive themselves now. Robotics is here and it’s rapidly changing the employment landscape.

A recent report predicts that over the next decade nearly 800 million jobs could be lost to automation, about 20 per cent of all occupations. Then there is the gig economy to consider, with millions of people going online for work. The future of work is a very uncertain place and the driving force behind that uncertainty is technology.

But are the robots really going to take all our jobs and is it such a bad thing if they do?

A lot of the rhetoric about automation has been how machines are taking jobs from real people, and unemployment is going to rise, and how the hell will we make a living when R2D2 and his mates have taken all the work. There is an undercurrent of resistance towards automation, particularly from working class people and labour market institutions like unions.

But what if we are looking at it the wrong way?

Automation is marching forward whether we like it or not. What if instead of as a threat, we view it as an opportunity – a chance to reshape our society and move away from an existential model where our worthiness, our very identity, is determined by the success of our engagement with the economy? What if instead of toiling away in offices or factories for 40 years of our lives we can invest our time in creative and leisurely pursuits that enrich our life experience? What if we explore other ways to measure an individual’s contribution to society that isn’t dependent on their status as a ‘worker’?

I believe we need to give serious thought to shaping a society that isn’t dependent on paid employment, one that de-links wages from work and explores concepts like the universal basic income. At the moment we are all working in society but imagine if we were freed up to work on society. Technology might give us that opportunity. Ponder that.

Of course, there is still going to be work that needs doing and rather than disappear entirely, jobs, at least those performed by humans, will likely change.

We might be capable of manufacturing robotic intelligence, but we cannot yet create artificial consciousness. So, roles that require empathy and judgement like aged-care workers, lawyers, and teachers will still be in demand, perhaps even more so.

But these occupations require specific skills and usually a high level of training, so the dynamism of our education systems are going to be crucial. While I’m on it, education is a particularly salient area – what kind of future are we preparing young people for? Are we preparing them for jobs that won’t exist? Should we be preparing them for jobs at all? Should we instead be educating them to become citizens of society, separate from a worker identity?

These conversations need to start happening now.

We’re not adapting fast enough to the march of automation and the transition will be excruciatingly painful if our governments, economies, and education systems are not flexible and forward-thinking.

Technology could widen income inequality and lead to more social unrest. In the past few decades high performing economies like New Zealand have gotten worse at worker dislocation support at a time when it has become increasingly more vital.

If we don’t have systems in place to help people displaced by technology transition from traditional employment into something else, then the social underclass, and the associated consequences and costs, will grow.

The future of work is indeed a very uncertain place.

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