Will AI Make Us Obsolete? Exploring the Future of Work in The Age of Technology

“Since I last wrote to you, I have been considering within myself what class of persons amongst you is injured by Machinery?”

A handbill entitled ‘Fellow Weavers’, printed in March 1812 in Manchester, one of the main centres for the cotton industry

As the UK government had to dispatch 12,000 troops to suppress the Luddite movement, a lot of blood had been spilled over the machines. Luddites violently opposed the application of cost-saving and productivity enhancing machines, out of fear that their jobs would be eradicated. Have they tried to control the uncontrollable? Is humanity controlling technology or is technology controlling humanity?

The rise of ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence models, from narrow to general purpose ones, has reignited this fear once more. Ironically even data scientists who developed and are still actively improving these computational machines are not immune from the feeling. That’s understandable and one would expect that technological progress since the early 1800s would have eliminated all jobs. But how is it that Brits still work, earn more, and enjoy better employment conditions than their Luddite ancestors could have imagined? The majority of adults in the UK that really want to find employment can find it and the wages are higher than what Luddites have fought for. All of this even as the British population grew from 36 million in the 19th century to 70 million in the 21st century.

Two ideas can help us understand why that’s the case. Firstly, the fear that technological advancement, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, will make human jobs redundant is misplaced because human labour is not a consumer good but a producer good. Consumer goods can lose its economic value when a better alternative exists. For this reason cars have replaced horses. But human labour is not a consumer good purchased because of the employer’s ingrained desires. Instead, it is a producer that can always be deployed in a different production process. Replacing factors of production with other ones in one process, still leaves them valuable in other production processes. This is especially true for human labour which tends to be more generic and therefore still valuable in an endless array of possible lines of production. Crucially, and herein really is the gist of it, the value of human labour is underpinned by human time whose scarcity is behind the scarcity of all other resources. Human desire has no limit and whenever it is satisfied, new ones emerge, and this is enough to direct human work in an endless virtuous civilisational cycle. Humans will always face the issue of economising their use of limited time no matter the degree of progress.

The second thought that helps us understand the issue is this insight: technology is like a self-regulating organism that evolves independently and takes human civilisation to places that we cannot even imagine yet. We can say technology influences civilisation, not vice versa. But how is this possible, and how can it be understood when humans are the ones making subjective value judgments? Technology creates value that accrues to each individual making her individual assessments of value. The swarm of people that benefit from technology constitutes an economic force that no amount of Luddite sabotage or government restriction can stop. The individuals that adopt new technology are so much better off that they outperform those people that do not adopt new technology. And in this way of technology driven “natural selection” we will witness artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and machinery come up “victorious” and “unbeaten”. Human factors of production will be replaced by technology but this will not close the number of paths in front of the man. In contrast, it will open new avenues that we are just beginning to see or perhaps are completely blinded by. Workers and machine technicians have gradually been replaced by data scientists who design the algorithms that govern our lives. But it will be naïve to say that the work of human mind will remain the domain of Homo sapiens. We are not only discussing a succession of new types of jobs replacing the old ones. We are probably going to see the human race transmuted to a shape and form that will make future generations look upon us the way we perceive Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, with a myriad of ways to work.

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