Article originally published on LinkedIn, 28 March 2017
In his LinkedIn article “Why the future of work is a National emergency,” Michael Spencer outlines what he sees as the threat of automation (which increasingly involves artificial intelligence – AI) for employment, and the ramifications of this in the economy.
Here’s an alternative view. First and most important is to disaggregate “work” on the one hand from “jobs” and “employment” on the other. The salient factor here is remuneration. So the “future of work” is not the same thing as the future of paid work – i.e., jobs, employment. In my reading of Mr. Spencer’s article, he like many people, does not make this key distinction.
Second, the automation of production will require a rethinking of at least four fundamental aspects of the socioeconomy: work, employment/jobs, income, and wealth.
- If automation can do routinized work, that frees us to do other kinds of work – involving more creativity for instance. That’s a good thing, in my opinion.
- If automation takes jobs (reduces opportunities for employment), then we need to return to the fundamentals of what the jobs were intended to do: organize work in production of necessities for living (or in secondary or tertiary sectors supporting that work), and permitting those with the jobs to earn a living. When automation replaces people in production, it is really not “killing jobs” so much as taking over the creation or adding of value. So the real question becomes how the benefit of that value is distributed. One not at all novel solution, which is surprisingly absent from current discussions, would be to reduce the hours employees are on the job while holding the salaries at the same (full time) level.* As automation becomes more thorough, the focus on distribution of the value created by production will have to shift to novel approaches (see the next item on income).
- If automation reduces the opportunities to earn income, then we need to look at ways to provide the necessities for living (which are being produced by automation). This might include basic income – an idea that is getting more attention by the way. People with basic income, and freed from routinized work, can find ways to increase their income through work of interest to them and value to their community.
- If automation, by producing the necessities for life and other goods for the quality of life, creates wealth, the question becomes whose wealth? The original inventors and engineers who created the automated processes, and their descendants? Corporate entities that own the intelligent machines that displaced people in the production processes? Eventually the intelligent machines themselves? Or…? This is a big question that impacts other issues including the above.
The “national emergency” then is really the passing of a set of paradigms about work, jobs/employment, income, and wealth. That’s both dangerous and a great opportunity.
* For example, this was one of the concepts envisaged by James Cooke Brown in his 2001 book, The Job Market of the Future. That book was featured in a previous post on LinkedIn, “Back to the job-market-of-the-future.” Interestingly, the benefits of reducing hours on the job, as discussed by people like David Suzuki (see for example this mention on LinkedIn), would mesh with the concept of keeping workers on for reduced hours in the wake of automation.