Will humans work in 2050?
by Alan Martin
Professor Richard Susskind has bad news for your children. “We’re training young people to be good at what machines are already good at,” he says during a discussion with Emma Barnett at FutureFest 2016. In Susskind’s latest book, co-authored with his son, he explores the very real possibility that future experts will lose their jobs to artificial intelligence. So confident in this is he that he thinks thousands of students are driving down a career cul-de-sac without realising it.
You might be rolling your eyes at this point, feeling that warnings of robots taking your job are overblown, trite, or both, but Susskind – an expert in law and AI – has a history of being dismissed by peers. “In 1996 I wrote a book on the future of law and – I know it sounds ridiculous now – but I said that ‘the dominant way that lawyers will communicate in future will be by email.’ At the time, the Law Society of England and Wales said I shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public and that I was bringing the legal profession into disrepute.”
So it’s no surprise that 20 years on, some people still have their fingers in their ears. “It’s hard convincing a room full of millionaires that they’ve got their business model wrong,” he quips.
In Susskind’s book, he and his son explore two possible futures: one where machines augment our current professions (a doctor using Skype to remotely connect with a patient, say), and one where the profession is directly replaced (the computer does the diagnosis, cutting out the middleman). Elements of this are, of course, already rearing their heads. “In one year, more people signed up to Harvard’s online courses than attended the entire university since it began,” Susskind says, while highlighting advancements in practically every sector. “Even in the clergy, we found an app called Confession,” he says. “It has tools for tracking sin, and a dropdown menu with offers of contrition.” It brings to mind, Susskind says, an aphorism from the science-fiction writer William Gibson: “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
This needn’t be a scary scenario; we just need to adapt to the changes that seem increasingly inevitable. “Our professions are creaking. If you think of the difficulties of our NHS, of getting access to justice, of our education system. Our professions aren’t really delivering the quality of service we want,” he says. “We say in a technology-based internet society, surely there are other ways of sorting out problems that, historically, professionals would solve.” In short, this AI-driven future should be something to embrace. “People are wanting to do to professions what Amazon did to bookselling,” he argues.
“The least likely future is nothing’s going to change,” says Susskind, “yet that’s the assumption that many people are basing their entire careers on.”
“Humans don’t like change”
As AI is a big focus for FutureFest this year, it’s no surprise that I run into Susskind on a panel again later in the day – this time discussing similar issues with futurologist David Smith. It isn’t, as it turns out, much of a debate, as they’re pretty much in complete agreement.
“We started off with automating manual tasks – diggers, cranes, lorries, et cetera,” Smith explains. “Then we automated clerical tasks, so we don’t have hundreds of people sitting at desks writing in ledgers, and lots of people lost their jobs and they did something else. Then we automated managerial decision-making, and that’s increasingly built into systems behind the scenes. All this is now is the professions’ turn. This is what’s uncomfortable: the professions that you studied for years have never had to go through this degree of change.”
“Human beings don’t like change. Corporations don’t like change. Startup firms that want to beat corporations love change,” says Smith, and they are the disruptors here. Sometimes disruption can happen too quickly for our “creaking institutions” (to paraphrase Susskind) to cope: “The law lags behind technology by five, six or seven years,” he claims.
As if immediately proving Smith’s points regarding humans and change, one of the questioners from the audience articulates much of our unease, even at an event where people have paid money to look into the future. “This feels like an incredibly weird debate we’re watching, like ‘look at the pretty asteroid in the sky’,” he comments. Why isn’t the government doing anything about the inevitable?
Susskind, up to this point a seemingly half-full glass of optimism, couldn’t really argue with that. “I can offer you almost no comfort at all,” he replied. “It seems to me that we simply have not engaged, in industry, in government, in policymaking at the highest level. These people need to be thinking most about this imminent issue for resolution, even though the technology will take some time to unfold.”
“You can either say ‘I’m going to compete with the machines,’ or you can say you’re going to build the machines.”
There are signs this is beginning to be taken seriously, but as ever with these changes, far too slowly. Former Conservative leader William Hague wrote about the issue in The Telegraph just two months ago, and the same issue had been discussed at a fringe event during this year’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool. “Technology can either be our master or our servant,” Jon Trickett, shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, told The New Statesman. “I think we will have to make it our servant.”
That seems a somewhat naive view to me. It’s certainly something Susskind is used to hearing, but he’s unconvinced that our progress could be stopped, even if we as a society decided we wanted to. “There are two strategies: you can either say ‘I’m going to compete with the machines, or you can say you’re going to build the machines. Those are really the only two options.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
Of course, it’s easy to be a little hyperbolic about these things. As another FutureFest speaker, Jared Robert Keller – a specialist in the history of automation and the labour market – points out, these fears have been a part of our debate since the 1920s. On 11 December 1927, The New York Times featured the headline “‘MACHINES, MACHINES!’ THE FUTURIST’S CRY; But the World Asks Whether Man Will Be Enslaved by the Instruments He Creates to Free Him From Bondage.” The 1933 Chicago World Fair put it a bit more bleakly, with the motto “Science finds, industry applies, man conforms.”
With such a rich history of experts predicting bleak things for unemployment – and as yet being quite far off – Keller is perhaps a little more sceptical than most. He outlines a mistake made time and time again with our predictions about the future of work: we judge future job markets by what is available at the time of the prediction. Take cybersecurity – a whole sector that simply didn’t exist a few short decades ago. “It’s kind of a zero-sum game, where one job taken by a robot means one less potential job for a human being,” Keller explains, “but as we know the job market is constantly changing and creating new occupations.”
“I think if we’re going to say that ‘we’re the generation that proves the rule, where mass unemployment hits,’ we have to be very clear about what makes us the exception.”
I put this quote directly to Susskind when I sit down to talk with him later. “We have seen no evidence in any of our research that the new tasks that emerge are tasks for which machines have a comparative disadvantage over human beings, and that’s very, very different,” he replies. “In the past when the new tasks have emerged, there have been no machines to take them on.”
“The point is our machines are wildly more capable than they were, so somehow to compare primitive factory technology to what we have now is to be missing the point,” he added. I explain more of the context of the quotes, highlighting that it was surveying the environment in an historical context. “Historians are not always helpful in periods of discontinuity,” Susskind counters. “Historians will say we can learn from the past, and it’s true, but I think this is a different era.”
“Remember I’ve been involved in AI for 35 years – my doctorate was in AI – I didn’t say this 35 years ago. I’m saying it now.”
Coping with the transition
Despite this, Susskind doesn’t believe this rapid transformation will occur right away, and if you’re over the age of 50 and reading this, you’ll likely be spared the most dramatic shifts. “We don’t think this is an overnight change. The 2020s is a decade of redeployment rather than unemployment, but by the 40s there will be significant questions of what human beings should do.”
But it’s a future that he’s broadly optimistic for. In particular, the idea that knowledge can be held in commons. “It’s a kind of vision, and maybe even an ideology, that really excites us,” says Susskind. “In areas such as medicine, the idea that everyone on the planet has access to good diagnostic and treatment systems is amazing. That everyone on the planet could have access to guidance to what their entitlements are is amazing. That small businesses could dip into the expertise of [management consulting firm] McKinsey, not by having to pay their hourly rate but by accessing some online service, is fantastic.”
(Above: Richard Susskind)
“What’s harder to be excited about is the reality that there’ll be fewer and fewer things for human professionals to do, because this requires a whole recalibration of our thinking – in terms of the role of work in our lives, and whether work is necessary for a meaningful life and so forth.
“This is too important to be left to technologists. This is too important to be left to the market.”
Quite. As the debate I mentioned earlier showed, politicians aren’t paid to think of the long-term consequences – quite the opposite in fact. They’re incentivised to push short-term policies with swift returns, to hold aloft when seeking re-election five years later.
“This is too important to be left to technologists. This is too important to be left to the market.”
Unless we think about these terms, we could well have a crisis of capitalism, Smith believes. “If you think about the language, it’s very old: we use the ideas of retirement, pensions, taxation, welfare, how we generate money. The language is all wrong. This is half the problem – we can’t really have a conversation until we rethink how it really works,” he says.
Ultimately, he concludes, to use our current vernacular, businesses that employ fewer people but make more money will have to pay more tax, but that’s a problem in its own right. “Making people want to do that in any single geographical jurisdiction or tax regime is going to be really interesting.
“There needs to be a debate among politicians who have a view of the future – and there aren’t many – for a political system that has more long-term thinking.” How do we extract money from automated industries – and in a global society, how do we ensure the money just doesn’t cross tax borders? Because if humans aren’t earning a wage anymore, then something has to give.
If all of this is leaving you feeling alienated from the seismic changes on the horizon, I’ll leave you with this quote from Susskind: “We are living through a period of greater and more rapid technological progress than humanity’s ever seen,” he told the audience during the debate. “It’s just a privilege to be alive during this period.
“You can fold your arms as many professionals do and say ‘I hope I can hold out until retirement’, or you say ’actually, what’s my role in this?’ Every couple of hundred years you have an opportunity to take part in a fundamental change in human society. We’ve got that now. I think to be scared of it is to miss the point.”