Nothing is more basic when you consider the future of work than who exactly is going to be doing that work.
Increasingly – maybe even alarmingly so – the workers are not going to be human, but the products of artificial intelligence. It’s a genie that is already out of the bottle, and it is how we humans adapt to it that is the big question.
That’s one of the questions that Jerry Kaplan addresses in his new book, Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. It is definitely a volume that anyone who hopes to find gainful employment in the not-too-distant future should have a look at.
Kaplan, who has an impressive background in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, doesn’t write like a technician. Instead he has produced an easy to read book that offers an overview of the various technologies and driving forces that have brought AI to where it is today. And where he believes it is going, and quickly.
An underlying theme in the book is Kaplan’s effort to dispel the notion that AI workers will only do what humans have programmed them to do. That may be true for a while, he says, but as AI workers “learn” about their environment and are connected to a vast trove of ever-changing data in a way humans could never match, on their own they will adapt not only how they do things, but what they do.
It depends on your worldview whether the developments he foresees are benevolent or malevolent. Do they represent a bright and wonderful future where “robots” do all the mundane work and leave humans to pursue more creative and pleasurable pursuits? Or a dystopian world where most wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, and unless you’re programming the machines, jobs will be extremely hard to come by?
Who Loses First?
Among the first jobs that Kaplan sees being given over to AI is truck drivers. He says self-driving vehicles could be implemented in the very near future, with the immediate results including vastly safer vehicle operation, trucks driving only inches behind one another to reduce road congestion, and operations around the clock, with refueling stops the only thing needed between the starting point and the destination. Sounds good, unless you are one of hundreds of thousands of truck drivers losing a job.
Others on the immediate replacement target list would be warehouse workers, since AI workers know where all inventory is at any given time, and they can work 24×7 – even in the dark and cold to throw in some energy savings.
And if you’re a creative type or “knowledge worker” who figures you’re pretty safe, don’t get too comfortable. Fast-learning AI workers whose brain is essentially a Big Data machine will eventually find their way into creative work. An AI worker could evaluate thousands of successful marketing or advertising campaigns in seconds, compare them to the client’s needs, and present its ideas. Would these ideas be quite as good? Probably not, but look at the savings in billable hours.
But Kaplan is an optimist. He says as long as these changes come fairly gradually, the workforce will adapt. He compares it to the reduction in agricultural employment from the beginning of the 20th century to its end. That was a radical reduction – from 40 percent of the workforce to 1.5 percent – but one that was absorbed.
We the workers will, however, need to change the way we look at skills and training. We must continually be learning, and we must adjust our educational system to prepare people for the jobs and workplace of the future, he emphasizes.
Kaplan does a superb job of pointing out the balancing act required as we look at how AI “workers” come to rule in the marketplace. That includes moral considerations, such as how driverless automobile make judgments in critical situations. Does the vehicle veer into a school bus full of children in order to save its passenger’s life?
Where the book falters is where Kaplan indulges what seems to be an obsession with income inequality. He devotes an entire chapter to his complicated proposal to even out incomes. Complicated because he tries not to simply grab from the rich and give to the rest of us, but build a structure that can accomplish that against the backdrop of a more-or-less-free market. Still, this detracts from what is otherwise an excellent read.