There’s two answers – the big scary answer and the hopeful answer.
The big scary answer is that yes, huge swathes of jobs are going to be lost to machines over the next 25 years. There’s no two ways about that. Everything that is driven or manipulated or moved is going to be done by a machine, whether that’s in a warehouse, or a delivery driver or taxi cab. That’s a couple of million jobs right there.
Every call centre is going to be 80% at least automated. Look at law, accounting – the structure of those organisations is going to change radically over the next few years, where you’ll see many, many fewer people in the back office doing the grunt work.
We cannot foresee at the moment what is going to create the volume of jobs that are going to be lost in the likes of retail, finance, logistics, these huge employers.
We can see what some of the more interesting new jobs might be, but nothing is going to employ people on that scale.
The hopeful answer is that there is still a suite of uniquely human capabilities that look quite defensible from the machines. They are the ‘three Cs’ – the ability to curate, create and communicate.
By curation, we mean the ability to discover and qualify information. It may not look like it given the fake news saga over the recent US election, but human beings are actually pretty good at recognising patterns in materials that are true and not true. We are rather better at it than machines – we have a nose for fidelity and veracity.
We are still not at a point where machines can create beyond the bounds of the rules laid down to them by their human creators. Machines can’t communicate in the kind of compelling, personal, emotional way that we can. I think we still really underestimate the richness and bandwidth of communication between two people. Look at the difference between being on a phone call and being face to face. Communication face to face is exponentially richer. That’s why we still travel around to have conversations with people – machines are nowhere near close to replicating that. We don’t even understand how it works, let alone how to replicate it.
There is a clearly defensible set of human skills which aren’t going to be replaced anytime soon. But the big fear is that that represents a very small number of total jobs.
- So what are people going to do? The best bet will be a combination of a guaranteed basic income of some description and a return to arts, crafts and education. And looking after the elderly.
So what are people going to do? The best bet will be a combination of a guaranteed basic income of some description and a return to arts, crafts and education. And looking after the elderly.
The number of spas, hair dressers etc – there’s already been an explosion in them. There’s room for some expansion, but it’s already a pretty big industry in the UK.
Depending on what level of disposable income we’re going to have it’s hard to see how that kind of industry is going to expand.
If you look at our crumbling infrastructure, the states of our roads, public property etc, there’s potentially a lot of work to be done in restoring and maintaining all of that, but at the moment, we just don’t have the economic system to fund it.
You end up with a kind of binary option. The reason that people are so keen on a guaranteed basic income is because it allows us to maintain something like the status quo - a consumption-driven economy that we maintain by putting money in people’s pockets, probably through some kind of increased corporation tax.
The other option is wholesale semi-communist revolution and that doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Given the vested interests in avoiding that situation, I think accommodating some sort of guaranteed basic income is more likely. It will be a total compromise. It’s such weird idea – we’ll end up putting money in people’s pockets so people can spend money so it can be taxed so you can put the money back in people’s pockets.
It’s kind of absurd but it’s going to be closer to the status quo and an easier mental shift for people.
Until such machines can regulate themselves - at the very minimum - our participation in performing "work" is inevitably tied to an ever specializing industry. The brick and mortar of a "smart city" are communication, and convenience within the sphere of consumerism, as a smart city is designed to perpetually better accommodate our daily life (which is inevitably heavily consumerist). What has to be reexamined and put under question in such a cultural tidal shift is our relationship to the terminology of performing "work"; what does "work" mean in a culture where we further ourselves from the office environment and manage to simply capitalize on things such as pictures of our breakfast and travels through creating data rich environments that act on advertisement on certain media platforms? The idea here is the ever-increasing blur within the notionally clear distinction between work and enjoyment - or production and consumption - as they slowly become one and the same. Under a capitalist lens, when our daily activity is regarded by our social tools (social media platforms, news, phones, computers, anything digital regarding any sort of "communication", etc.) as abundantly valuable collections of data that can be traded, it shapes the beginning of an a new invisible currency of which we are inevitably a part of without being able to access it directly (as we are not specialized). When the meaning of work is relative to an incredible amount of specialization not accessible to the masses in order to maintain such a large scale of automation - physical & digital - what is left of "work" is our ability to capitalize on our daily activities via existing, automated social media infrastructure. The hope is that the shift is not in the full-scale automation to liberate us from work because it will always be capitalized, (note: liberation from work is not liberation from consumption, we will always need full pockets to consume), but that in this liberation from work we are integrated better into this new digital economy where our value as data is two-way, and not just monetarily beneficial to the algorithms that treat us as data, so that we too can capitalize for ourselves by using our data, by regarding ourselves as data. Very simply exemplified by the fact that by posting an Instagram picture on Facebook, you incite activity towards Instagram from Facebook users (whether they already use it or not), and be supplied a commission for doing so; the same way you advertise McDonalds by walking around with a HappyMeal or McDonald balloons after consuming there - you entice other to do so as well. This commissioned based economic system already exists through very select platforms like Lyoness and many more which employ commission based cash-back social "pyramid-networks", except applied to everything we do. Through that, you earn through yours and others' consumption, because your "work" is to advertise, or entice others' consumption beyond yours. And if consumption equals pleasure and enjoyment, then work equals the same. Automation therefore leads to a very skewed society; those who are specialized enough to operate the automation (until it can operate itself), and those subject to it. It is within that subjugation that all this would be organised, as society requires less and less physical labor, and more and more digital "labor" - or activity. As things currently stand however, under this notion, by using Instagram daily you already are inherently a worker of automated social systems; you just are an unpaid worker. That, is an ethical question that our generation might perhaps begin to legally and politically address, hopefully.