Can we stop talking about Artificial Intelligence displacing jobs already?
AI will not steal our jobs. It will result in more meaningful work.
Okay, here are the hard facts: AI will bring dramatic changes to our society in the next few decades and take away many, if not the majority, of the jobs that exist today.
Terrifying, right? But wait a minute.
Let’s say AI does displace most of the jobs in the world. Then its impact on the structure of our society will be so fundamental that even the way we define the term “job” will be drastically changed.
In other words, after the “age of AI” dawns, rather than thinking about how we should find new jobs for people who were displaced by AI, we should be thinking in a much broader scope about our role as humans in this new world — a world in which most of us will not need to work as much (or as hard) as we are now working.
Therefore, let’s go beyond talking about AI displacing jobs, and instead have a conversation about how we as a society should define “jobs” in the first place in the age of AI.
Jobs will no longer be necessary for daily bread, but will instead be pursued for their own enjoyment
For most people right now, when we talk about jobs, we are really talking about something that we have to do for 8 hours (or more) a day to put food on the table for ourselves and our families.
For the majority of us, jobs are not something that we do for its own enjoyment, but rather a duty that we must fulfill to justify our existence as a productive member of society. One report, for instance, finds that more than half of Americans are unhappy at work.
In the age of AI, this conception of “joyless jobs” will change dramatically, because most of the them will be replaced by AI in the very near future.
In 2013, a research study by Oxford found that around 47% of percent of existing jobs are at risk of being automated by AI in the 20 years.
While many see this number as a threat to a large segment of society, I see this as a liberation for many to pursue what they really want to do and to unleash their full potential.
One of the biggest industries this point applies to is finance. The aforementioned study projected that over 40% of work in finance will be replaced by AI in the next two decades.
As graduates from a top-ranked business school, many of my peers went into the finance industry after finishing college.
What greets them are grueling 80+ hour work weeks, soul-crushing tasks such as crunching numbers on Excel every day, and the overwhelming pressure to deliver (or risk getting weeded out in the competitive corporate ladder in finance).
While most of them did not really enjoy their job (in fact, one study showed that over 50% of junior analysts quit after the first three years), my finance friends saw these jobs as the necessary evil to get the jobs they really wanted, such as jobs in private equity and startups.
What AI will do to the finance industry is remove the need of these necessary evils to college graduates. By eliminating the option of these passionless but well-regarded finance jobs, AI will open the opportunity for them to pursue the work they are passionate about in the first place, whether that’s work in startups, private equity, or otherwise.
For example, with the onset of the internet age, jobs such as e-commerce owners are created that greatly simplified the selling process for most producers, making them focus on their core enjoy of their job — making products, instead of worrying about convincing distributors to distribute their products.
The interesting thing about these new, creative industries enabled by AI (like startups) is that no matter how many jobs AI can replace, there will always be new ones created to fill in the gap (such as , therefore not displacing anyone in the process. Thus at the end of the day, AI will only make jobs more enjoyable and less demanding.
AI will not only elevate the enjoyment of work, but also the wellbeing of the working class
Many are quick to ask, “What about working class jobs like manufacturing? People there really do not have alternatives like young college graduates, and their jobs are also at risk due to AI.”
The point I want to make here is that this population we are talking about is a significant portion of our society. Therefore, some kind of mechanism has to be in place in the age of AI to make sure these people are not left behind.
The ultimate solutions we use may vary. It might be a universal base income (UBI). Just this week, Hillary Clinton revealed in her campaign memoir What Happened that she had worked with staffers on a campaign proposal for a universal basic income for Americans, funded by carbon and financial transaction taxes.
Once considered politically improbable, universal basic income is receiving more and more traction on the left and the right as a serious policy solution to large-scale job automation. As Andrew Yang (founder of Venture for America) points out in his upcoming book The War on Normal People, UBI is “rapidly gaining popularity among forward-thinking politicians and economists. It represents a critical step toward a new kind of economy he calls “human capitalism.”
Or it might be European-style education and retraining programs to help those workers adopt AI-based work. European social democracies such as Germany have spearheaded government programs to retrain workers during times of high unemployment.
Or it might simply be (I personally am banking on this) the development of AIs with advanced interaction design that enable workers to take on higher-level jobs even without a high level of education (you don’t really need to know how a car works to drive).
But the bottom line is that these people will not be left behind by the AI revolution. They will only be elevated by AI in this new societal structure shaped by the AI revolution.
In fact, I will go so far as to argue that this group of people will contribute unprecedented levels of productivity to society that they were never able to under the old “job” system.
To support this argument, let’s look back at the history of human evolution.
As someone who comes from a psychology background, what amazes me about the human species is that, although our genome has not altered drastically for the past 5000 years, we managed to elevate our well-being to a level that is unimaginable even with millions of years of natural evolution.
What this means is two things.
First of all, the rapid advancement of humans stems not from an increase in our raw brain power, but rather our ability to make sophisticated tools that support our work, enable us to communicate rapidly, and build better tools through innovation.
Secondly, there is not that much variance among humans in terms of intelligence and ability to innovate. After all, the privileged are not privileged because they have better genes than the underprivileged.
This means that if we pair the least intelligent person in our society today with the most intelligent person from 2000 years ago, the less intelligent person is still significantly more productive than the smartest ancient person, despite their differences in intelligence because they have access to resources and tools that makes them so productive.
So if the variance in the ability to innovate is not very large among the general population, AI will free up the minds of working class people to be much more creative and innovative, rather than leaving them with nothing to do.
What this means is that working class people can focus more of their time and energy to education and training (which are made much more affordable by the internet), or simply doing work that they themselves consider worthwhile.
And when they work in projects and fields that are actually enjoyable to them, their level of contribution to society is going to increase, enabling a better society for us all. After all, operating a cash register usually does not inspire much fulfillment or motivation to innovate.
AI enables humans to be more fully human
One of the major concerns you may have at this moment is “What if AI takes all of our jobs away without giving us all the benefits that you have mentioned? Won’t this create a world of oppression by those who own the AIs?”
I strongly believe this will not be the case.
As I wrote quite extensively in the article I published last week (linked below), to make the perfect AI that can replace human jobs, the AI needs to interact with humans and learn from us.
What this means is that AIs will never be able to push us aside and do everything by itself without our input.
Instead, the determinant of a great Artificial Intelligence should (and hopefully will) be its ability to understand and ask questions about human needs, and provide humans with the right information at the right time to make the right decision.
Eventually, a division of labor will occur between humans and AI, in which humans will only be responsible for tasks that are human in nature — making decisions based on our moral standards and free will. AI, as our compliments and co-workers, will be responsible for collecting data and running analytical processes to empower us to make better decisions.
This will eventually make “inhuman” jobs, such as manufacturing and bagging groceries, unnecessary. This will bring out the true advantage of the human being — human creativity and innovation — to its full potential in our new economy.
Like all innovations, AI will be a net good for society and human ingenuity will control the side effects
Andrew Smith once said, “People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer.” This perfectly describes our fearful perception of AI right now.
At its current trajectory, the AI revolution is inevitable in the next couple of decades, and the changes it will bring worry many people whose jobs will be impacted.
However, as explained in this article, the changes brought by AI to our society will be much more fundamental than we currently realize. Therefore, it is does not make sense to judge the changes AI will bring in the future with the lenses of our current culture, where jobs are the ultimate good and the displacement jobs the ultimate evil.
In the end, just like all human innovations in the past (including the steam engine, electricity, and the internet), new innovations that add value, no matter how feared in their time, will on balance create a net positive impact on our society and make our lives better.
It is hard to imagine an AI future that is not better than the status quo. While some people might have hardships in the short-term due to mismatches between advancements in AI and advancement in institutional policies to control its negative effects, this pain will be at most short-lived and temporary.
As it has always done, human ingenuity will kick in and find solutions for any negative side effects that appear. Institutions like OpenAI (Elon Musk’s AI research nonprofit) are established (and more will continue to be established) to trailblaze a path to safe AI that improves society.
Ultimately, we will live in a world that is more creative, productive, and enjoyable, and we will never want to return to the world we have now. So get ready, and enjoy the ride.
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