With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technologies, it is inevitable that a number of jobs will be lost to automation. At one level, such “technological unemployment” is nothing new – since before the industrial revolution jobs have been automated through the use of technology.
Historically, this hasn’t been an issue. A combination of human ingenuity and the ability to create new products and services has - until now - increased the scope for employment and fulfillment.
But this time around, things could be very different. Regular forecasts suggest up to 80% of all current jobs could be impacted or disappear through automation – and only a fraction of those displaced will find opportunities in the highly automated industries of the future.
This doesn’t need to be a problem - if we can wean ourselves off the notion of having a job as the ultimate goal and responsibility of every individual of working age. But this shift comes with challenges; education, training, the welfare state and the benefits system are clearly not fit for purpose in the jobless future.
However, rather than this spelling disaster for future generations – it may actually be a blessing in disguise.
In twenty years, automation may have created a society where jobs aren’t available or are not being created at the scale necessary to employ the large numbers of people digitized out of work. Employment would become a rare and specialized activity, creating huge groups of people with no job, no prospects and no income. Governments would be forced to implement programs to relieve the economic and societal pressures that could arise: how would people buy food, pay rent, obtain education? Even more so, how would they buy the products and services companies sell?
A possible solution being proposed is an aggressive public policy to help underpin a post-job society with basic income programs, known as Universal Basic Income (UBI) or “Mincome” (“minimum income”) and Universal Basic Services (transport, electricity, education, sanitation, healthcare). If AI and other forms of smart technology do take over many work functions, the social safety net would need to expand beyond filling temporary gaps to actually forming the basis of the provision of essential needs for most people.
Today’s social safety nets are designed to protect the lowest-earning and non-earning members of the community, mostly on a temporary basis – with the ultimate intention being to get people back to work. But this would change with a mincome approach. Instead it could empower the majority and offer the support needed to foster human creativity, problem solving and innovation. Making sure all the basic needs are met across society would be a necessity in the absence of paying jobs. This could also provide a huge benefit to society in terms of maximizing human potential.
So, what does this mean for education?
Although we are already seeing losses in routine white-collar office functions, we are also seeing gains in computing, mathematical, architecture, and engineering related roles. But these won’t necessarily be the biggest growth areas. Social skills — such as persuasion, caregiving, emotional intelligence and teaching—will be in higher demand than narrow technical skills.
And all the evidence suggests that teachers will high demand. Recently UNESCO has announced that almost 70 million teachers must be recruited to achieve the goal of universal primary and secondary education by 2030.i While AI might perform the logistical and technical aspects of teaching, including grading and assessing, it cannot yet replicate the one-to-one support of a human teacher in a classroom. Rather than panic at the thought of law firms replacing attorneys with ‘robolawyers’ we might see instead an opportunity to increase the number of smart people working with children. Automation could make teaching a more attractive and lucrative profession, and drive innovation in schools by enhancing human skills in the classroom.
So, are our education systems ready to respond to the shifting nature of work and the disappearance of jobs? What is the justification for compulsory schooling, for example, in a future where jobs don’t exist?
Schools will have to change to adapt to new realities, which could include lawyers teaching civics, social workers taking kids on field trips into at-risk communities, and scientists escorting children to conduct experiments on local waste sites. Though AI will absorb the brunt of the informational and computational work, human insight will be vital when it comes to complex human and social problems, including the environment. Yes, AI will take jobs, but it can also help ensure that education systems promote human creativity and provide insights that can be used for developing solutions that overcome some of the world’s most demanding problems.
So, is this jobless future actually a win-win?
In the past, formal schooling has occupied the most developmental years of a person’s life under the premise of being preparation for future employment. Yet, technology trends suggest that the jobs we prepare our children for today won’t be there in ten or twenty years.
Without clear-cut jobs to prepare for, future generations, enabled with some form of mincome, would be in a position where experiential and self-guided learning could be more embedded in everyday life and become the new definition of “making a living.” Rather than spend eight hours a day in classrooms, in preparation for spending eight hours a day on a job, children could go outdoors, explore their communities, travel short and long distances and learn about things they enjoy. Future generations could experience education that preserves humanity, not eliminates it.
There is unlimited potential for humanity in a world where work is mostly performed by machines and algorithms. One of the most positive responses to automation would be to eliminate social and economic inequality. Our biggest gifts to future generations would be to redirect resources to ensure all people have what they need to survive, and are provided with opportunities so that the majority, not the lucky few, get to seek personal fulfillment.
Preparing future generations for jobs that do not yet exist, or the absence of work altogether, is one of the main challenges of the future. It is also one of the biggest opportunities.
We have a choice in front of us today; use the technology at hand to create massive unemployment and economic inequality or as an enabler of abundance and human potential.
Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington of Fast Future
Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock