The future of work is usually associated with two scenarios. Pessimists emphasize fears of possible unemployment, and optimists see it as a new set of jobs. However, what they both agree on is that the form of work will depend on technological progress.
Over the last two hundred years, technologies have continuously changed the way we work. A steam engine, electricity, internal combustion engine, communication technologies are technologies referred to by some economists as general-purpose technologies. These breakthroughs have fundamentally affected all industries. Now, we can boldly include digital technologies among them as well. Automation, artificial intelligence, the Internet, and its platforms will shape the work sectors of industry, economy, and the work market in the coming years. It will affect where we work, what skills we need (and don’t need), how we communicate, and what types of tasks we solve.
Throughout the 20th century, technologies replaced several physically demanding types of tasks. Many digital technologies have speeded up this process, and also helped industries that couldn’t even imagine automating. Yet several pessimists believe that unlike in the past, when technology deprived us of mainly routine work, it will take away our cognitively demanding professions (accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc.) in the near future too.
MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have pointed to the recent progress of artificial intelligence here and here. According to them, advanced algorithms can perform cognitively required tasks. For example, self-driving cars or visual recognition of objects. Does this technological advancement mean that robots will take away all our work? Hardly.
Today’s breakthrough in artificial intelligence concerns narrowly specialized types of tasks. However, with creativity, invention, empathy, communication, solving unexpected and specific problems, there is still minimal progress within AI. Evolution had far more time and opportunity to improve these human abilities. Mathematical theories (probability, calculus, algebra) with which we create current algorithms are still very far from biological solutions. We do not even know whether today’s form of mathematics will allow us to describe evolutionary solutions with sufficient accuracy.
Despite the tempting notion that we live in an exceptional time, the current technological progress is still only replacing people in routine work. In the coming years and decades, artificial intelligence will, above all, help us with tasks that are routine and time-consuming. We should feel free to automate those tasks and form creative types of work. After all, this is our goal.
Therefore, the question we should ask isn’t if we’ll have jobs in the future, but what kind of jobs we should expect.