An end to work is one of those topics, like immortality or space colonization, guaranteed to make your friends groan and roll their eyes. After all, the idea is hardly new. As far back as the 1930s, George Orwell wrote with exasperation, "How often have we not heard it, that glutinously uplifting stuff about the machines, our new race of slaves." But what if Artificial Intelligence and robotics really do bring this about?
Of course, Orwell's skepticism is understandable. Since the end of the Second World War, numerous predictions have been made, from cancer cures to robot servants, that proved over-optimistic. Nevertheless, though disagreements abound, profound change in the world of work seems certain.
Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, argues that we live at the dawn of a fourth industrial revolution. In the late 18th century, England and France underwent the first, with the appearance of the textile industry and steam engines. Between the 1870s and 1914, Europe and North America underwent a second, as electricity improved production and led to inventions like the light bulb and telephone. The 1980s saw the third revolution, this time across Asia, Europe, Australasia and North America. Known as the Digital Revolution, this led to personal computers and the Internet.
The fourth revolution will include nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, quantum computing, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. In each of the previous three revolutions, there was job loss and job creation. The difference this time, say the experts, is that A.I. and robotics will replace human beings altogether. Whereas previous advances only took blue collar jobs, the fourth revolution will take white collar ones as well.
The statistics are indeed alarming. Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, predicts that around half of all jobs in the UK will soon fall to automation. And the same will happen across the globe. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, predicts that automation will take 69 percent of jobs in India and 85 percent in Ethiopia.
Soon, machines will do the cognitive as well as the physical work. When the first tractor appeared, for example, it was just a lump of metal. It needed the intelligence and skill of the farmer to get it moving. When the plowing is guided by an A.I. system, however, that farmer will merely be a spectator.
And this revolution will be felt almost everywhere. Right now, there are A.I. systems that can diagnose disease. At present, they are little more than assistants. But what happens when they grow so sophisticated and so accurate they consistently outperform even the most experienced doctor? Or take self-driving vehicles. The horse-pulled Hansom cabs that criss-cross London in a Sherlock Holmes' novel, for example, were replaced by the iconic black cab. In either case, you still had a driver. In the fourth industrial revolution, A.I. will do away with the driver altogether.
Of course, no one really knows what state the job market will be in next year, let alone in ten or twenty. In the past, technological progress wiped out one kind of job and replaced it with a different one. And, in spite of the warnings, this may happen again. As Stephen Fry joked during a recent lecture, someone will still be in charge of the robot brothels!
This much we can say. First, humans are better at empathizing and caring. No matter how sophisticated A.I. becomes, no matter how human-like the robots look, no matter how soothing and gentle their voice, the sick and frightened will always want a human hand and a human smile. We crave the warmth of human touch. Empathy and humor, even the pity in someone's eyes, can never be replaced by a robot.
Even if machines could do certain tasks better than us, we would still want other human beings to do them. We may produce machines that can write novels greater than Tolstoy, or paint better than Rembrandt. And yet we will still read War and Peace or visit an art gallery to see a Rembrandt portrait. Why? Because art reassures us that others feel and think as we do. Art connects us to another mind and soul. No matter how perfect the use of color, no matter how beautiful and rhythmic the language, once we learn that an A.I. system was responsible, the magic will disappear.
And this desire for authenticity applies even to ordinary objects. Musicians prefer a violin made by a craftsman to one produced by a machine, no matter how good. Or take the furniture in your home. Most people find mass-produced tables and chairs ugly and soulless. They buy them because they cannot afford anything else. Given the choice, however, many would opt for something handmade.
In debates on this subject, one person argues that the revolution will liberate us, and that people have been brainwashed into thinking of work as healthy and fulfilling. His opponent, on the other hand, argues that work provides meaning, and that without it we would cease to be human.
The truth is that both are right. Some people do need work and really do feel miserable during bouts of unemployment. Others bitterly resent it and wish they could spend their time learning new things, walking in the mountains, or playing with their children instead.
Those who believe that human beings need work often begin by arguing that it gives the day structure and purpose. Indeed, for many their career is the central focus of their life, and when deprived of it they sink into depression. In his book Affluenza, the psychologist Oliver James notes how often the super-rich destroy themselves through alcohol and drug addiction, something that could be explained by the emptiness of privilege. And studies have shown that when people take early retirement they tend not to do the things they planned: instead of writing a novel or learning the piano, they spend their days sleeping and watching TV.
Human beings need routine. Indeed, they often find it comforting. Take bereavement, for example. When someone loses a parent, they usually take a week or two off work to deal with practical matters, recover from the shock, and so on. Returning to the workplace often helps. At home there is nothing but tears and sadness. The indifference of work colleagues can actually cheer them up. Life goes on. The constant distractions, and the demand on their time and energy, makes brooding and self-torture impossible.
Work also provides self-esteem and self-respect. For many, their work is their identity. You have probably heard neighbors referred to not as "John," or "Sue" but as "the doctor," "the lawyer," or "the journalist." And it isn't only the pride people take in their actual job, or in practising their skill. People also derive self-esteem from the sense of autonomy. Most prefer to earn money than to inherit it. And consider the number of people who win a fortune and yet return to work, even though they could now retire.
Those who welcome an end to work point out that many are literally made ill by deadlines, bullying, exhausting commutes, etc. As George Carlin once joked, "you hate your job? There's a support group for that – it's called everybody, and they meet at the bar."
The reality is that what's true for one person does not apply to a second. Yes, one person needs structure and routine; but some don't. And while one person derives satisfaction and self-esteem from their job, a second is indifferent, and a third ashamed. Statistics back this up: a 2014 Gallup poll, for example, found that 70 percent of Americans find their job unsatisfying.
The Oxford professor Yuval Harari, author of Homo Deus, argues that in the near future the fastest growing class will not be the unemployed but the unemployable: people with nothing to offer that cannot be done more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently by a machine. Unless this is addressed, a huge and dissatisfied underclass will emerge, people with no means of supporting themselves and with nothing to occupy their time.
Several answers have been put forward, of course. One of the most common is known by the acronym "UBI," or Universal Basic Income. In other words, everyone would receive a basic income from the government (not the bare minimum to survive, but a basic, liveable wage, the sort of income you would receive working as a shop assistant or nurse). In the last year or two, there have been several trial runs at this, most notably in Finland. Surprisingly, it has gained support even from some on the right of politics.
Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The End of Work, argues for a working week of just 30 hours. Overall, employees would take a small pay cut, but that could be compensated by governments, who would tax those making a fortune from A.I. and other emerging technologies.
If A.I. and robots take most jobs away, we should see a change in values. Or, rather, a change in what we value and how highly we value it. For example, a machine will never be able to comfort the elderly, raise children, or empathize with a friend.
The teaching and care sectors will thus experience a huge influx of talent and energy, with more and more people moving into nursing, private tutoring, and social work. That will mean a generation of children who have been nurtured like never before.
More people will also train in therapy and analysis, driving down costs and making long-term therapy available to all. Hopefully, this should make society a happier and more civilized place, with exceptionally well-balanced and educated children and fewer marginalized and forgotten individuals. That in turn will mean lower rates of crime and mental illness, leaving governments with more money to fund something like the UBI.
As for our purpose, Oscar Wilde foresaw all this in a fascinating essay titled The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Though written in England towards the end of the 19th century, Wilde could see that one day the machine would replace us. At last, Wilde argued, everyone will be free to pursue the true meaning of life: self-exploration and self-growth.
Perhaps most important of all, the coming revolution will mean greater freedom. People will be free to decide how they live their lives. And greater freedom over one's own life can never be a bad thing.