In the mid-1960s an ad hoc committee of 35 scientists and social activists including Linus Pauling and several other Nobel Prize winners sent a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson warning that in the future a “cybernation revolution” would create a “separate nation of the poor, the unskilled, the jobless.” Is 21st-century technology displacing human workers? Concern over technological employment is nothing new, but it is seen as a much more imminent threat by many experts today. McKinsey, a global consulting company, reports that, “as many as 45 percent of the activities that individuals are paid to perform can be automater by adopting currently demonstrated technologies…. [T]hese activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages.”
The emergence of autonomous vehicles and industrial systems is expected to eliminate many more jobs, but the number of white-collar jobs is also expected to decline. One participant in this canvassing went into detail about ways in which small human teams assisted by algorithms will be able to accomplish much more than large human teams do today, creating efficiencies and eliminating jobs in the process.
Algorithms are to the ‘white-collar’ labor force what automation is to the ‘blue-collar’ labor force.
Stephen Schultz, an author and editor, wrote, “Algorithms are to the ‘white-collar’ labor force what automation is to the ‘blue-collar’ labor force. Lawyers are especially vulnerable, even more so if those with competency in computer programming start acquiring law degrees and passing legislation and rewriting the syntax of current legal code to be more easily parsed by AI. Another profession that might benefit from algorithmic processing of data is nursing. In the United States, floor nursing is one of the most stressful jobs right now, in part because floor [registered nurses] are being given higher patient loads (up to six) and at the same time being required to enter all assessment data into the EMR (electronic medical record), and then creating/revising care plans based on that data, all of which subsequently leave little time for face-to-face patient care. The nursing process consists of five stages: assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation and evaluation. Algorithmic information processing would be most helpful in the diagnosis and evaluation stages … with self-reporting monitoring devices directly feeding into the EMR.”
Smarter, more-efficient algorithms will displace many human work activities
A number of respondents focused on the loss of jobs as the primary challenge of the Algorithm Age. They said the spread of artificial intelligence will create significant unemployment, with major social and economic implications. One respondent said that because they are “smarter, more efficient and productive and cost less … algorithms are deadly.” One predicted “potential 100% human unemployment” and another imagined “in some places, a revolution.”
If this is improperly managed we will have a massively unemployed underclass and huge social unrest.
Don Philip, a retired PhD lecturer, commented, “If this is improperly managed we will have a massively unemployed underclass and huge social unrest.”
Peter Brantley, director of online strategy at the University of California-Davis, criticized American capitalism and predicted “significant unrest and upheaval,” commenting, “The trend toward data-backed predictive analytics and decision-making is inevitable. While hypothetically these could positively impact social conditions, opening up new forms of employment and enhanced access and delivery of services, in practice the negative impacts of dissolution of current employment will be an uncarried social burden. Much as the costs of 1960s-80s deindustrialization were externalized to the communities which firms vacated, with no accompanying subvention to support their greater needs, so will technological factors continue to tear at the fabric of our society without effective redress, creating significant unrest and upheaval. Technological innovation is not a challenge well accommodated by the current American capitalist system.”
Seti Gershberg, executive producer and creative director at Arizona Studios, wrote, “AI and robots are likely to disrupt the workforce to a potential 100% human unemployment. They will be smarter, more efficient and productive and cost less, so it makes sense for corporations and business to move in this direction.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “The big issue in the use of these algorithms is what the function of a ‘job’ is. If it is to keep a person participating in society and earning a living, then algorithms are deadly; they will inevitably reduce the number of people necessary to do a job. If the purpose is to actually accomplish a task (and possibly free up a human to do more-human things), then algorithms will be a boon to that new world. I worry, though, that too many people are invested in the idea that even arbitrary work is important for showing ‘value’ to a society to let that happen.”
Joe Mandese, editor-in-chief of MediaPost, wrote, “Algorithms will replace any manual-labor task that can be done better and more efficiently via an algorithm. In the short term, that means individuals whose work is associated with those tasks will either lose their jobs or will need to be retrained. In the long run, it could be a good thing for individuals by doing away with low-value repetitive tasks and motivating them to perform ones that create higher value.”
Some seek a redefined global economic system to support humanity
While some predict humans might adjust well to a jobless future, others expect that – if steps aren’t taken to adjust – an economic collapse could cause great societal stress and perhaps make the world a much more dangerous place. Alan Cain commented, “So. No jobs, growing population, and less need for the average person to function autonomously. Which part of this is warm and fuzzy?”
Without changes in the economic situation, the massive boosts in productivity due to automation will increase the disparity between workers and owners of capital.
An anonymous PhD candidate predicted, “Without changes in the economic situation, the massive boosts in productivity due to automation will increase the disparity between workers and owners of capital. The increase in automation/use of algorithms leads to fewer people being employed.”
An anonymous director of research at a European futures studies organization commented, “We need to think about how to accommodate the displaced labour.”
Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and first president and CEO of ICANN, wrote, “The limits to human displacement by our own smart machines are not known or very predictable at this point. The broader question is how to redefine and reconstruct global economic systems to provide a decent quality of life for humanity.”
Polina Kolozaridi, a researcher at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, wrote, “It is a big political question, whether different institutions will be able to share their power, not knowing – obviously – how to control the algorithms. Plenty of routine work will be automated. That will lead to a decrease in people’s income unless governments elaborate some way of dealing with it. This might be a reason for big social changes – not always a revolution, but – in some places – a revolution as well. Only regular critical discussion involving more people might give us an opportunity to use this power in a proper way (by proper I mean more equal and empowering).”
A universal basic income – a strings-free stipend awarded to everyone in a community to cover general living expenses – is one potential solution that is often mentioned in discussions of a future with fewer jobs for humans. Paul Davis, a director who participated in this canvassing, referred to this as a “Living Wage” in his response. He wrote, “The age of the algorithm presents the opportunity to automate bias, and render Labour surplus to requirements in the economic contract with Capital. Modern Western society is built on a societal model whereby Capital is exchanged for Labour to provide economic growth. If Labour is no longer part of that exchange, the ramifications will be immense. So whilst the benefits of algorithms and automation are widespread, it is the underlying social impact that needs to be considered. If Labour is replaced, in a post-growth model, perhaps a ‘Living Wage’ replaces the salary, although this would require Capital to change the social engagement contract.”
Michael Dyer, a computer science professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who specializes in artificial intelligence, commented, “The next 10 years is transitional, but within the next 20 years AI software will have replaced workers’ jobs at all levels of education. Hopefully, countries will have responded by implementing forms of minimal guaranteed living wages and free education past K-12; otherwise the brightest will use online resources to rapidly surpass average individuals and the wealthiest will use their economic power to gain more political advantages.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “The positives outweigh the negatives, but only if we restructure how society works. We need a societal change that accepts the dwindling availability of traditional work, or we’ll have PhDs rioting because they can’t afford to eat. Something like Basic Income will need to be implemented if increased automation is going to be a good for humanity.”
Another anonymous respondent commented, “We will see less pollution, improved human health, less economic wastage, and fewer human jobs (which must be managed by increasing state-funded welfare).”
An anonymous professor observed, “Unless there is public support for education and continued training, as well as wage and public-service support, automation will expand the number of de-skilled and lower-paying positions paired by a set of highly skilled and highly compensated privileged groups. The benefits of increased productivity will need to be examined closely.”
One respondent said time being freed up by AI doing most of the “work” for humans could be spent addressing oversight of algorithmic systems. Stewart Dickinson, digital sculpture pioneer, said, “Basic Income will reduce beholdenship to corporations and encourage participation in open-source development for social responsibility.”