A World Without Work

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond.

A book by Daniel Susskind (Penguin Books 2020)

Read and commented by A. L. Balbo

02 November 2023

It appears that works that are most difficult to automate are those defined as ‘pink-collar’ as opposed to ‘blue-collar’ and ‘white-collar’.

As we near information explosion and artificial intelligence, human intelligence will have to redefine economic and social systems, through transformative education and policy. While conventionally labelled ‘Pink-collar’ jobs would see an upsurge, we will also have more leisure time and unpaid work to do as a society. How should the society adapt? What policy makers need to foresee? What should we teach the next generation? A. Balbo identifies key arguments raised in ‘A World Without Work,’ by Daniel Susskind.

In 1930, Keynes argued that by 2030 technological progress would lead to a world with a workload of 15 hours per week. The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data shows a 10% decrease in worked hours per year in OECD countries between the years 1970 and 2015. An increasing number of work tasks are indeed being automated, due to the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which was first announced in 1947 at the London Mathematical Society by A. Turing.

What can AI do? 
In 2003, three economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Autor, Levy and Murnane proposed the ALM hypothesis, which stated that automation was confined to routine tasks that follow unambiguous rules and procedures. This excluded non-routine tasks involving tacit knowledge such as creativity, judgement, interpersonal relations, and manual skills from the scope of automation.

However, recent examples show how the boundaries of AI capabilities are being pushed, with increasingly non-routine tasks being accomplished by machines. Some examples include:

  • The Merlin App developed at the Cornell Lab of Ornitology, which can recognize a bird by a glimpse of its flight.
  • 2017 ‘Science,’ paper by Ledford showed how an AI algorithm could outperform human researchers in the taxonomic identification of plants
  • 2017, Stanford University designed system to detect skin cancer with great precision based on freckle imaging
  • Japan, the deployment of therapeutic robotics to address the challenges faced by a fast-aging population,
  • AI unleashed creativity in architectural design by supporting the design of the auditorium of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg

Therefore, we now distinguish two kinds of AI:

  • Artificial Narrow Intelligence or ANI (handling very particular assignments)
  • Artificial General Intelligence or AGI (with wide-ranging capabilities)

When maturely developed, the computational capacity of AGI would represent a turning point in human history akin to an intelligence explosion, which Ray Kurzweil Viking defines as ‘singularity’ in his book titled ‘The Singularity is Near’. It is predicted to happen as early as 2047. In this context, E. Schmidt, former chairman of Google, estimates that we produce now every 2 days as much information as that created between the dawn of civilization and 2003.

What tasks and jobs will be saved?
It appears that works that are most difficult to automate are those defined as ‘pink-collar’, as opposed to ‘blue-collar’ and ‘white-collar’. ‘Pink-collar’ jobs are those where women have traditionally been employed in majority. These represent the highest jobs creation in the US over the period between 2014 and 2024:

  • Teaching (in preschool and kindergarten): 97.7% employees are women.
  • Nursing: 92.2%.
  • Hairdressing: 92.6%.
  • Housekeeping: 88%.
  • Social work: 82.5%.
  • Table-waiting: 69.9%.

Interestingly, the most demanded and the least automatable jobs, are also often amongst the least-paid, including social workers, paramedics, and schoolteachers.

What should politics do?
Some of the political challenges emerging from automation of jobs would be related to the consequent lack of paid work, and more free time for humans. This is likely to cause greater inequality and an apparent loss of purpose for individuals in a society.

Inequality. In a world with less paid work, the value of human capital generating income from paid work will drastically see a downfall. However, fewer super-jobs such as those of super CEOs will remain relevant and high paying. Apart from this, dependency on traditional capital, which entails for example incurring rent from ownership of property, will witness an upward trend. This means wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few minority groups. In this case, policies may be enacted to redesign a redistribution mechanism that ensure a fair distribution and management of wealth.

  1. Taxation: Taxes could be levied on traditional capital and income, inheritance, robots, offshore wealth stocks, super income individuals and big businesses. This includes proposing tax percentage for CEOs to be raised to as high as 70% of their income.
  2. Redistribution among those without capital and income: The concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) may be replaced by that of Conditional Basic Income (CBI), where access to income depends on the beneficiary performing services of social or environmental value, such as voluntary work. Currently, Norway, as a capital-sharing state, already has the largest such Citizens’ Wealth Fund, worth USD 1 trillion, which is 190,000 USD per head distributed among the 5.2 million citizens. Alaska has a similar Permanent Fund worth USD 60 billion.

Purpose. In a world with plenty of free time, policies will have to shift focus to encourage and regulate leisure time. This involves reinforcing the importance of leisure time to living a meaningful and healthy life. In the UK, most leisure time is currently spent on media (5-6 hours/day/person). As a response, the British government (Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport) supports actions that encourage people in spending more leisure time outdoor, doing sport, learning skills (swimming, cycling), or going to museums for free.

But what will people actually do?
Lockdown during the Covid 19 pandemic provided an insight into what activities people may do when flooded with free time. Most people resorted to low-tech, manual, domestic tasks such as baking, basic do-it-yourself (DIY) projects and gardening.

But what other activities can people do, besides domestic low-tech work and leisure?

  • Volunteering: In the UK, there are 15 million volunteers today, that is half the workforce. It is estimated that their efforts amount to as much as the energy sector in the country, with 50 billion GBP/year of unpaid work.
  • Care-giving: Most care-giving activities are unpaid. This unpaid family care in the US is valued 500 USD billion per year and 100 GBP billions /year in the UK.

The institution of a Conditional Basic Income (CBI) would stand to value and benefit people without income who engage in solidarity to perform activities important for the community. This shift requires that activities such as reading, writing, composing, thinking, politics, government, educational, household, and caring, are recognized by the society at large.

How should teaching and education evolve and adapt?
For such activities to be recognized, teaching and education should value and instill virtues such as honesty, kindness, community service, curiosity, creativity, diligence and perseverance. In a world without work, value will be allocated through community recognition rather than market wages for professionals such as teachers, nurses, caregivers, parents, artists. 

Teaching will have to avoid preparing students for tasks that have been or are being automatized, instead teaching should educate to meet the increased demand for non-routine roles such as nursing, care work, and building machines.

In a fast-changing work environment, where people may need to upskill and reskill several times through their professional life, massive online courses (MOOCs) show potential to provide broadly accessible, adaptive, personalized, and life-long learning opportunities. It is impressive that more people signed up for Harvard University MOOCs in a single year than over the nearly for centuries of existence of the institution (established in 1636). Another early example in this sense is Khan Academy, which was altogether created online to provide free access to quality education.

Way forward
In a fast-paced work environment, transformed by automation and artificial intelligence; education and life-long learning are key to guiding people, policies, and society at large. Education can instill core values and virtues such as community service, curiosity, and perseverance among young learners. Easy access to long-life learning can help people benefit from the AI revolution, engage in new ways, keep growing intellectually to live a fuller and a more meaningful life.

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