The automation of work promised by artificial intelligence is often seen as a source of great potential for the handful of people who stand to profit from it, including those who will own the machines that replace people, and a great evil for those who will be replaced by it.
This is nothing fundamentally new; the idea of technology putting people out of work has been discussed since the time of Aristotle. While the problem became the center of public attention in Great Britain during the Luddite rebellion at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, now that computers are threatening to put 47% of jobs out of existence by 2040 people are seriously considering the issue again.
These doom and gloom viewpoints tend to assume that we will continue to view work the same after automation as we do now. However, better ideas have been put forward, some of them nearly 100 years ago.
In the 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes advanced the idea that the increased productivity brought about by machinery was a cause for celebration rather than fear. The only risk he saw was our mismanagement.
Keynes noted that a contributor to the Great Depression was that an “increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption,” and mused on what life might be like a few decades in the future when increases in productivity could leave workers with little to do in the way of actual work.
He devised a simple solution to both the issues of production and excessive leisure:
“But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”
He then imagined that his grandchildren would be able to spend a great deal of time trying to find activities to fill their days with. What a life they would live, having to work for three hours to help fill the time!
While his essay was written long before the current wave of automation, one which promises to be a much more significant paradigm shift than any previous one, his insights are still relevant today.
Artificial intelligence offers us the chance to automate a tremendous amount of work and make life a bit more comfortable for everyone. There will no longer be a need, if the need currently exists, to have every person working 40 hours a week to produce all of the goods and services we need. A much shorter work week will be not only possible but practical.
If we structure this transition properly, as Keynes suggested, there will be no need for armies of workers to toil all day so society can function; they will soon be able to do the same work in a fraction of the time and enjoy the rest of their day with no economic consequence.
Perhaps most importantly, work needs no longer be that thing we do to pay the bills but leaves us too drained to do anything else. With the mass automation of simple, menial tasks and the reduction of necessary hours, work can be what it often is at its best; an avenue for creativity, expression, self-realization, and progress.
AI and automated workplaces are often feared for the unemployment they may cause. This need only be the case if our thinking evolves more slowly than our machines. Automation has the potential to change not only how we work, but how we view work. The question of if we will decide to make the changes needed to bring the benefits of automation to everyone is entirely in our soon to be idle hands.