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22 January 2020

A World Without Work: technology and the future of unemployment

Many jobs existing today will not vanish completely and new ones will be established, including those we have not yet imagined.

By Anthony Seldon

The challenge posed to humanity by artificial intelligence (AI) will be much harder to solve than global warming. Powerful economic and political interests are increasingly aligned to tackle the climate crisis, albeit at two minutes to midnight, whereas AI is being driven on and on blindly into the night.

A World Without Work is thus to be welcomed. It is an excellent and timely piece of analysis by Daniel Susskind, who with his father Richard wrote the seminal The Future of the Professions (2015), which explored the impact of digital technologies on employment in the professions. Susskind combines a mastery of global research with insight into how government works, having been a member of Downing Street’s policy unit.

The book begins with Wassily Leontief, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. In the early 1980s, he argued that technological progress, in the form of computers and robots, would eventually drive humans out of work, just as cars and tractors did with horses. In the US, 30 per cent of employees believe that their jobs will be replaced by new technology in their lifetimes; in the UK, a similar proportion think that it will happen – but by 2040.

Susskind looks at past predictions with a sceptical eye, noting that many earlier warnings of widespread unemployment and disaster were proved wrong. He is far from convinced by a recent survey of leading computer scientists, which concluded there is a 50 per cent chance that new technology will outperform human beings at “every task” within 45 years. Nor has he any truck with the hotheads preaching imminent disaster. He argues that many jobs existing today will not vanish completely and new ones will be established, including those we have not yet imagined.

But the problems we face are still very real, he says. Though the AI-informed technologies of the future will not take over all jobs, they will adopt more and more activities currently performed by humans, leaving the remaining roles only for the most highly skilled: “as we move through the 21st century, the demand for the work of human beings is likely to wither away, gradually,” he writes. Meanwhile, work will be drained of challenge and satisfaction.

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Consider the black-taxi drivers of London. The arrival of AI technology has made the “Knowledge” that they must acquire to get their licences, and over which they take great pride, near redundant. However deep their command of London streets and fastest routes, they cannot compete with the AI technology on every dashboard, which will tell drivers what they could not possibly have known in the past, for example about a spillage two blocks away, and the best route to avoid it. The result is deskilled and disillusioned drivers.

The economic impact of the new technology is, in Susskind’s opinion, double-edged. It will entrench growing inequalities in the labour market, as some fall off the bottom of the employment ladder, while a small minority climb up it to stellar jobs. Equally, it will solve what has been principal economic problem throughout history: how to create sufficient wealth for all by making the overall financial pie so large that everyone has, or should have, enough to live a decent life with food, clothes and shelter (if not work).

The book grapples with thorny problems such as how to define the scope of government in the future and how to rein in the power of big tech companies so that they can benefit the many not the few. Susskind is an optimist, citing with approval Karl Popper’s belief that human beings can shape their own destiny. This is precisely why the book is so timely. The clock is ticking ever more quickly, and distracted by Brexit, by Donald Trump and by long-neglected problems including social care and infrastructure, we are in danger of not acting on this threat.

The book falls short, for me at least, when it turns to looking at what might constitute a valuable life in the post-work world. Work gives meaning and self-affirmation to many. Strip work away, and what is left? A life bingeing on box sets and videogames?

Education will be fundamental to helping us lead significant and meaningful lives. At present, we have a factory education system across the world that equates intelligence with the passing of tests and exams. This 20th-century mentality is failing to meet the needs of employees and society and is producing a huge number of young people with mental health problems. There is a vast literature on the subject, but it is barely scraped in the chapter on education.

Susskind asks the right question – what will replace the dignity work gave? – but falls short on answers. The building of relationships, family, adult education, communities, the arts, sport and volunteering are barely mentioned. Oddly, religion too is dismissed as no longer giving meaning to lives. But in this century there has been an explosion in people searching for meaning in spirituality and religion. In places this reads like a book written from the ivory tower of Oxford, its author seemingly unaware of what is going on in the outside world.

 But these reservations should not detract from the fact that A World Without Work is a book of immense importance that demands to be taken very seriously by N0 10, and by anyone who cares about the future of our country and world. l

Anthony Seldon is author of “The Fourth Education Revolution” (University of Buckingham Press)

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond
Daniel Susskind
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20

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This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people