It’s been almost impossible to miss all the recent media coverage of Artificial Intelligence and its application in everything from customer care provision to voice activated marketing to self-driven cars.
People have always blamed technology for replacing the work people do with machines. What we forget in this debate is that, until the last hundred years or so, the vast majority of people saw work as the necessary hard graft required to put food on their plate and a roof over their head.
Whilst there are still really horrible jobs – and far too many people without work or basic necessities such as access to medical care, clean water, and good nutrition – in Western societies, technical advancement has allowed many of us to extricate ourselves from physical, dangerous and demeaning forms of work, and to create careers that are fulfilling beyond renumeration: creatively, intellectually, socially… “job satisfaction”.
Just 20 years ago, many worried that the internet would seduce us away from the communities and friendships we shared with others within the confines of geography. That, of course, has come true in some ways, but can’t be further from the truth in others – juxtapose, for example, the once profitable high-street businesses slipping into bankruptcy as their profitability is undermined by internet retailers with groups of politically concerned citizens coming together, via social media, in support of shared initiatives.
The wonders of technology have, I think and in the balance of things, contributed positively to our lives. Although they have taken away employment opportunities in many industries – manufacturing, administration, etc – technology has also generated entirely new areas of employment, and those new roles tend to be those that come with the luxury offering both pay and “job satisfaction”.
I do, however, worry about there being enough jobs becoming available for future generations. As jobs disappear, so too do the taxes that our Governments depend upon to keep public debt at supposedly manageable levels. Much talked about solutions such as universal basic income are interesting, but aren’t – within our current economical models, unless you’re Norwegian and sitting on a massive public trust fund – sustainable forever.
At some point, we will have to find new models, not only to ensure broad access to necessities such as food, medical care and housing, but also to activities that will help us to fill our time in ways that don’t lead us to fall victim to boredom and possibly extremism, which have at least some causal link. Maybe we will find a way to monetise the human process that generate the data for the AI of the future to process and make use of. Perhaps the challenge of developing a new economic model for society will generate many millions of jobs, with us employed to sit around in salons debating solutions.
The reality is that, whilst every new technology causes economic, ethical and social uncertainty and a degree of upheaval, we’re going to have to collaboratively work together to address those challenges. I’m quite excited at the prospect of being around for the next few decades as we do this.