🔬 Research Summary by Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, PhD, works at the intersection of electronic surveillance technologies, privacy, cybersecurity, and data ethics.
[Original paper by World Economic Forum contributors: Hendrik Abel; Sebastian Haag; Caroline Jeanmaire; Stuart Russell; Conor Sanchez; Daniel Susskind; Risto Uuk]
Overview: It is time to think about positive futures—if leading computer scientists are correct that machines may outperform human beings at every task within 45 years, then it is necessary to consider how we will earn a living, what we do for fun, and how we interact with each other in our future society. At this point, there is a troubling lack of vision regarding what the future should look like, and unless we wish to drift without a compass into an unknown future, we need to engage in interdisciplinary discussions with leading thinkers and scholars—and decide.
Will we live in a world that closely resembles Star Trek, where there will be no need for money in the future? Will we find meaningful, alternate things to do to pass the time instead of “working” at a job? Will machines do all of the tasks that humans would rather not do so that we may flourish? Will there be a universal basic income for all so we can end inequality and positively change the world as we know it?
This report takes a look at the possible implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the future of work and attempts to prepare for different scenarios. The goal is to begin a conversation with thought leaders about what positive AI economic futures we want, and how to overcome the challenges we might face in achieving them. The researchers interview thought leaders and propose six positive visions, explore the challenges, and put forth some policy initiatives to achieve each vision.
High-level machine intelligence—implications for the future of work
Plainly put, it is expected that high-level machine intelligence will be reached within the next few decades. What is high-level machine intelligence? It occurs when unaided machines can accomplish every task better and more cheaply than human workers, without human aid. What is more, it is expected that machine intelligence may exceed human levels by the end of the century.
How might humans be affected? Humans may face various large-scale societal risks, involving safety and fairness, as well as economic risks such as increased inequality and loss of well-being from work. In fact, the authors state:
The fear is that, as new technologies continue their relentless advance into the realm of tasks once performed by human beings alone, the balance between these two forces will tip to the detriment of workers.
And since excessive automation may already be under way, it may be necessary
to nudge the direction of technological change towards systems and machines that complement rather than substitute for human beings. Clearly, we need to identify desirable economic arrangements to plan for a time when most work is done by machines.
Six positive visions
The authors advance six positive visions, the challenges associated with them, and any policy responses that might help to achieve them. Briefly, they are as follows:
- Shared economic prosperity. The goal is to find a way to share the economic benefits of technological progress more widely, causing the overall productive capacity of society to vastly increase. The main challenge with this idea is that human capital may decrease in value to the point that we might end up with a few billionaires owning all of the significant assets in the economy. A suggested policy response may be to create various redistribution programmes.
- Realigned companies. Governments, companies and society could work together to steer technological change in a more human-friendly direction to strengthen democracies, improve online information, and deepen political engagement. The main challenge here is that there may be superstar effects of digital and AI technologies, and the accompanying concentration of economic and political power, as well as wealth. A suggested policy response is to create interventions such as changing corporate structures and updating antitrust policies.
- Flexible labour markets. Using the approach that there should be plenty for most people to do, the aim is to ensure that humans adapt to new technologies and continue to find new employment, likely in new roles that may not even currently exist. The main challenge with this concept is that those who are most likely to lose their jobs are often the least well-placed to take advantage of new opportunities. A suggested policy response may be to increase willingness to retrain and reskill later in life with the same intensity that people do in early life—and create better safety nets during retraining.
- Human-centric AI. There is a “sweet spot” where humans and machines work together, where machines would compliment humans rather than substitute for them, preserving the demand for labour and decreasing inequality. The main challenge with this idea is that the incentives to automate are currently misaligned in that the current tax structure favours automation and is imbalanced. A suggested policy response is to make tax structures more conducive to developing and using technologies that complement human beings rather than substitute for them, aiming to reward those who create technologies that complement work.
- Fulfilling jobs. We would need to update our definition of work, where machines would perform dangerous, mundane, and boring tasks, and humans would perform safer, more fulfilling, and more enjoyable work—the end result would be greater job satisfaction and better health. The main challenge here is that AI could make jobs worse, subjecting humans to increased surveillance and regulation along with aggressive production targets. A suggested policy response may be to create robust guardrails to protect people from being exploited by AI systems and safeguard their working conditions. We could invest in beneficial AI research and applications, and create policies that take into account the societal consequences of replacing workers.
- Civic empowerment and human flourishing. Humans would be free of unpleasant labour and contribute instead through valuable unpaid activities—like in Star Trek. In this scenario, there would be no need for money, and the price of everything would be zero. Instead of using work to earn a living, attain status, or fill life with meaning, work would be used to serve the purposes of exploration, self-improvement, philosophy and meditation. The main challenge with this concept is that a workless future might be considered to be meaningless for some, especially when we know from previous research that work provides a critical source of meaning and purpose. And there could be inequality in the allocation of meaningful activities, and some may lose interest in becoming educated or creating value for society at all. A suggested policy response is to ensure that people are able to contribute to their communities. The most popular suggestion is to provide universal basic income and enable people to contribute meaningfully—potentially with the option of attaching conditions such as required education.
Between the lines
In my view, it is critical that we take the time to think about the above six possibilities, so that we do not end up in a situation where we are living our worst fears and gliding down the river without navigation tools or a paddle.
This report is just the beginning of the conversation—I agree that now is time to make this conversation a priority. I think that we need to delve much deeper into this discussion with experts who appreciate the importance of meaningful work, the relevant technologies, and the above six possible futures. Now that these initial insights have been put forth, I believe that it is necessary to focus more specifically on the key challenges and what can be done from a policy and regulatory standpoint to create a world where we can thrive. If the measure of success is the well-being of society, then we need to ensure that we can create it and measure it so we may flourish in the new world of work.