The digital revolution is disrupting work. This much is undeniable. But reports of the death of human work have been greatly exaggerated. We should not be preparing for a workless future. Rather, the spread of digital technologies gives humans the opportunity to refashion work after our own image. Instead of meekly surrendering the right to work to machines, we could aim for a social digital economy.
Many jobs currently done by humans will be automated, and human workers will be redeployed to areas that make the most of our social abilities. A social digital economy could address the epidemic of social isolation that afflicts the technologically advanced societies of the early twenty-first century.
We should expect the digital revolution to change the value we place on different kinds of work. Today, low-skilled jobs attract poor pay because they involve tasks that lots of people can do. Jobs that require lengthy educations have higher status and better pay because few people acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. In the future, how you perform relative to machines may make a bigger difference to your status and pay than how you perform relative to other humans.
The social exchanges that people achieve without training are very challenging for computers. Jobs that involve people skills but don't require prolonged educations should rise in status. Jobs that require knowledge that can easily be programmed into AIs could be demoted.
Jobs that involve people skills but don't require prolonged educations should rise in status.
It's difficult for a human to internalize vast numbers of legal statutes and analyze relationships between them. That's part of the reason lawyers are currently well paid. Consider a future in which powerful computers analyze vast databases of legal statutes and rulings. You might pay a human legal expert only if you can't get access to the local legal AI.
A recent study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte presents "waiter or waitress" as "quite likely" to be automated over the next two decades (90 percent probability!). If you conceive of that role as limited to registering orders and transporting food, then automation seems probable. However, if you conceive of a waiter as contributing to the experience of dining and using judgment to help people make food and wine selections that are right for them, then waiting seems very difficult to automate.
Establishments that are rushing to automate clearly care less about the experience of dining. McDonald's may soon be fully automated. But eateries that market ambience along with food are unlikely to go that way. If automation boosts the status of waiters and lawyering gets increasingly automated then perhaps the cafes of the future will feature highly paid waiters serving lattes to impoverished lawyers.
Perhaps the cafes of the future will feature highly paid waiters serving lattes to impoverished lawyers.
Suppose that automation shifts many human workers out of jobs that don't require people skills. There are places for them to go. There's a great need for jobs that respond to human social needs.
Social isolation is one of the great ills of our age. Humans are intensely social creatures. Lonely humans are more miserable and die younger. Yet the environments we have created tend to isolate us from each other.
This absence from our lives of other human beings is a harm that digital technologies are ill-suited to remedy. Sherry Turkle writes very persuasively about the failure of social networking technologies to live up to inflated expectations. We go online to connect but instead find ourselves more isolated. A high speed Internet connection is no antidote to loneliness, even if you're on Facebook. I hope the digital revolution brings an economy that addresses scarcities in human attention and concern. The cure for loneliness is contact with other people unmediated by technology.
We are not in a good position to imagine all the jobs of the social digital economy. Our social needs are complex. There should be jobs like teacher, nurse, waiter, counselor, actor, writer (computer-written weather forecasts are fine but most often when we read we want to be placed into contact with another human being) and other jobs centered on people skills. Technologies will radically reshape these roles.
A nurse of 2050 will be supported by powerful AIs that analyze symptoms and recommend treatments. But he will appreciate that direct face-to-face contact and human touch are perennial and essential features of nursing. Our position in respect of the jobs of the social digital age may be analogous to that of a forager looking in on the first agricultural settlements. She might predict that her grandchildren will spend their days doing stuff connected with farming but be unclear exactly what.
A social digital economy could address the epidemic of social isolation that afflicts the technologically advanced societies of the early twenty-first century.
This is no Luddite vision. The social digital economy will be enabled by powerful digital technologies. Machines will be humming away in the background doing the many jobs that do not require human contact. Some humans will work directly with the machines. But many others will be attending to human needs that are not well met by machines.
It's possible that computers will one day make good on these human advantages. Perhaps when the robo-psychotherapists of the very distant future tell patients that they know what it feels like to go through bereavement, they will really mean it. I think this would be an odd and self-abnegating direction for us to take computers. It's clear where there's a need for automation. If a fully automated cockpit gets me from Wellington to San Francisco more safely than a human pilot then I'm all in favor. But what could be true for pilots need not be true for roles based on our social natures. Why automate jobs that we are both good at doing and find deeply meaningful?
This vision of a social digital economy is not a prediction. There are many ways in which we may fail to realize it. Some of the jobs most threatened by the current fad for economic austerity are those with the greatest survivability into the digital age. If we continue to devalue people who make their livings dealing directly with other people then we risk ending up with some inhuman digital dystopia. But a genuinely social digital economy is worth fighting for.
This is part of the WorldPost Series on Exponential Technology.