Work in the 21st Century

Employment is at a record high in the UK, the number of people in work in the UK has reached 32.54 million.

employment uk

In America, too, unemployment is at a record low. However, the position of many in employment is rather precarious with the gig economy, zero hours contracts and the lack of union representation. For those in school there is a strong possibility they might not have a job when they grow up. We have no idea what the job market will look like in 2040. Some believe within a mere decade or two, billions of people will become economically redundant. The threat is not immigration, the fear of which has been stoked by many in the media but automation. Humans have two types of ability:  the physical and the cognitive. Machines have taken over many of the jobs requiring physical labour like in agriculture, until now humans have retained an edge over  machines in cognition but that is changing. The much vaunted “human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition”, computers analysing masses of data are becoming better and better at analysing patterns. The stock market is largely controlled by computer algorithms, which respond much quicker to market fluctuations than human stockbrokers.

CGP Grey put out an interesting 15 minute video in 2014 entitled “Humans Need Not Apply” showing how vast swathes of human jobs from drivers to doctors to musicians were potentially threatened by the growth of AI (Artificial Intelligence).  Humans need not apply link

Harari argues the threat to human jobs comes not merely from infotech but from the “confluence of biotech with infotech”. Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability. When a new medicine is introduced all AI doctors can be updated with the information at once. It would be almost impossible to update all human doctors about the latest medical developments.

work connectivity
from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

AI could provide (by means of a phone app for example) better and cheaper healthcare for millions of people, particularly for those who currently receive no healthcare at all. Many doctors focus on analysing medical data and producing a diagnosis, this is ‘bot work. We will probably have an AI family doctor on our smartphone decades before we have a reliable nurse robot, nurses needing good emotional skills for their jobs. Indeed as people live longer, care for the elderly will probably be one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy.

Self driving cars are real, it is estimated that replacing all human drivers by computers is expected to reduce deaths and injuries on the road by about 90%. Most car accidents are caused by human error, computers don’t drive drunk or tired or send text messages while driving.

driving and texting a dangerous game
texting while driving

Jobs requiring specialisation in a narrow range of routinised activities will be automated.

Art and music is already being created and influenced by AI. I have a “Prisma” app on my phone which can turn any photo I take into a chosen artistic style using some clever AI.

Metro carriage renoir
A Tbilisi Metro Carriage given the Renoir touch with Prisma

An algorithm could know which biochemical buttons to press in order to produce a global hit which would get bodies onto the dancefloor.

AI will create new jobs: the US armed forces need thirty people to operate each unmanned Predator drone flying over Syria. In 2050 the job market might be characterised by human-AI co-operation rather than competition. During previous waves of automation, people could usually move from one unskilled job to another…from working in the fields to working in factories to stocking the shelves at Walmart. These changes required limited retraining but in the future humans in jobs will require much training and as Harari warns we may see the rise of a new “useless” class.

work useless class
from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

AI passed a critical milestone on 7 December 2017, when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program at chess. Stockfish 8 was the champion chess program for 2016, Stockfish 8 had access to centuries of human chess playing and decades of human experience. AlphaZero learnt chess using the latest machine-learning principles to self learn chess, it played against itself millions of times to prepare for the match, millions of times in just four hours, going from zero to complete mastery in four hours without the help of any human guide. Out of a hundred games AlphaZero won 28 games, drew 72 and lost zero.

Change is stressful, the hectic world of the early 21st century has already produced a global epidemic of stress. We need to explore models for post-work societies. Harari suggests looking at Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities might give us some insights. They are poor and unemployed but Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. This is due to their strong community bonds and deep meaning they find in studying scriptures. If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to the algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing.





One thought on “Work in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari : Book Review – Blog #2

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