How Then Shall We Work?: Automation

A symposium on the changing nature of professions in the digital age.
Appears in Summer 2016 Issue: Our Built World: Some Assembly Required
June 1st, 2016
The Future of the ProfessionsScribner, 2015. 432 pp.


You've likely had more than one heated conversation with an automated voice messaging system or nearly lost it trying to buy avocados at the self-checkout. You've seen the images of robots building cars and now providing companionship for senior citizens. Our new creations are freeing us from work as never before, but we're often left asking: Now just what were we created for?

If you believe, as we do at Comment, that humans were made for work, then our increasingly automated, digitized age provides good reason to panic. But in Richard and Daniel Susskind's provocative book, The Future of the Professions, you'll find that things are not as bad as the doomsayers suggest. Our work is not being done away with—at least not completely. However, it will look radically different in the coming years. How? We've enlisted professionals in medicine, automation, divinity, journalism, and business to bring us some critical, skeptical, and insightful reports from the future, as it were. Take a peek.

AUTOMATION

Though I am a young man, and an even younger executive, I have watched with deep interest the ways that the development of various technologies have affected jobs, work, and vocation. What advances in computational power, machine learning, big data, robotics, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence will mean for people and work is a personal question for me on several levels.

My life has been profoundly influenced and inspired by those for whom difficult, toilsome, or long work was a positive, shaping force.

My maternal grandfather (PawPaw) was raised on a farm by a poor family in East Texas, and as a man he moved to the coast and worked in a refinery for over thirty years doing very physical and manual labour. From him I have learned the virtues of honesty, perseverance, courage, temperance, and gratitude. Those virtues were refined in him in large measure by hard work.

On a more intellectual and philosophical level, I have grown into my own work under the influence of the writings of Wendell Berry, another farmer, whose major themes include the defense of relationships, communities, nature, and humanness against the advance of "Progress." I have read and reread his "standards for technological innovation" outlined in his brief essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" throughout my working life as I have faced various decisions that I thought would affect people around me. I also find that I am often most pleased with my own work and fulfilled as a person when that work has been most difficult to accomplish.

Finally, my own current vocation is related to the advance of sustainable and healthy home building and remodeling. As I have continued to explore the boundaries of what is possible in terms of materials, renewable energy production and storage, smart home technologies, affordability, waste reduction, and building science and design, an emerging possibility is the potential promise of 3D-printed homes, which would be nearly zero-waste, incredibly efficient, low cost, and highly resilient. However, what would become of those who make their lives framing houses, hanging sheetrock, insulating walls and attics, and related enterprises? How do I love my neighbour? How do I love and care for the world?

So when I ask how we should think and act with regard to the relationships between people, work, and technology, I am not asking only a philosophical or financial question, but a moral or even theological question. It is against this backdrop that I read The Future of the Professions by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind.

I don't think it will surprise a modern person to hear that automated technologies are replacing human work and human workers. It has been going on at least since the printing press made scribes and hand printers quickly appear inaccurate, slow, and ultimately unnecessary, and probably longer. I also don't think it would be terribly controversial if I pointed out that the rate at which automated technologies are replacing human work and human workers seems to have accelerated markedly in the last century.

However, most people (or at least myself until very recently) assume that the kinds of work that will be replaced by technology are "lowerlevel" or "unskilled" or "highly repetitive" work like crop harvesting, auto manufacturing, textile weaving, electronics assembly, lawn mowing, tree felling, and so on. However, as the Susskinds make abundantly clear in The Future of the Professions, there is probably very little human work that can't be replaced or radically reduced with advances in computing power, robotics, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. It is not only manual work that is under siege; it is also those professions we hold in highest esteem as a society.

We are already seeing striking advances in white-collar professions such as health (WebMD), education (Khan Academy and Coursera), law (LegalZoom and LexisNexis), journalism (Twitter, WikiLeaks, and Flipboard), management (Open IDEO, GLG, and IBM's Watson C-Suite Advisor), accounting (QuickBooks), tax preparation (TurboTax), financial analysis (Aura), architecture (AutoCAD, Autodesk), engineering (Remcon and SkyCiv), and even divinity.

Dost thou protest? Observe the number of newspapers that have folded, the number of doctor's visits deferred, the number of taxprofessional visits avoided, and lack of draftsmen consulted to understand just how profoundly even relatively small advances in technology can disrupt income, jobs, and even whole communities of people.

To state it bluntly, we are staring down the barrel of a future in which human work is in many (or even all) cases completely divorced from meeting basic needs.

It would not be unreasonable to predict that there may be very little human work that can't eventually be done more safely, more quickly, more precisely, and more effectively by machines rather than people. To state it bluntly, we are staring down the barrel of a future in which human work is in many (or even all) cases completely divorced from meeting basic needs. To oversimplify (which must be done in a reflection this brief), we basically have two paths we could travel down toward very different destinations: one for a technological optimist, and one for a "Progress" pessimist.

PATH 1: THE POSTWORK AGE (THE TECHNOLOGICAL OPTIMIST)

The advances in machine learning, computing power, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and ultimately strong artificial intelligence are so profound that only a small percentage of the population (let's call it less than 10 percent) actually has to work to keep society going. We're talking near complete separation of basic needs and the need to work.

The technological optimist believes this leaves more time for the most essentially human tasks: creativity, experiences, and relationships. In order to make this feasible, at some point along the way we would probably need to introduce some sort of "universal basic guaranteed income" or other such measure. This might be resisted at first from certain sections of the population, but we have to remember: in this scenario, it's not that people aren't working for a living because they are lazy; they aren't working for a living because there aren't jobs that humans can do more capably than various technologies. We don't have to work to make money, so therefore we are free to spend our time on creative activities, experiences, and relationships.

PATH 2: MAN VERSUS MACHINE (THE PROGRESS PESSIMIST)

Foreseeing the above unfolding in frightening, morally uncertain, or existentially risky ways (e.g., we can't control a strong AI, a nearly insurmountable gap emerges between the technology-owning rich and the unemployed and unemployable poor), we decide to actively work against the unbridled advance of technology through legislation, policing, protesting, advocacy, and positive counterexamples . . . or (God help us) outright violence. According to this path, the abolition of work is the last stop on the train leading to the abolition of humankind, and it is morally urgent and existentially necessary to fight against blind progress.

This path would take astounding commitment and determination because it would likely be unpopular, upsetting (to put it mildly) to wealthy and powerful people and organizations, and would likely not come about on its own. The prevailing tendency with technology seems to be more, faster, better, and we'll ask philosophical, theological, societal questions later. The train is already moving so fast that to stop it or even slow it down meaningfully would take a large amount of energy.

The prevailing tendency with technology seems to be more, faster, better, and we'll ask philosophical, theological, societal questions later.

We would need to limit machine learning to carefully contained "weak" AIs, and we would have to prevent robots and computers from entering certain "human" realms of work through activism, legislation, and policing.

So, which one is the right path? The strange thing about all of this is that it will be very difficult (though as the Amish have shown probably not impossible) to opt out. It is an Adam-and-Eve sort of decision. A few people, by partaking of the fruit of the tree of (artificially intelligent) knowledge, will make a decision that we all must live with. Let us pray the church is not asleep at the wheel.

 

Jason Ballard is the co-founder & CEO of TreeHouse, a home improvement company focused on health & sustainability. Previously a lay minister and aspirant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, Jason studied biology at Texas A&M University. He has also worked at a homeless shelter & as a forester. He is married with two children, and when he is not working & pondering on the future of buildings he is likely to be found on a long run or at a nearby fishing hole.

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