Will Automation Lead to a Work-less Future for Humans?

Automation for Everything
To add to our fears about the future, it seems we’re running out of letters with which to name successive generations: after Baby Boomers, came generation X, then Millennials (aka Gen-Y), who have now been succeeded by Generation Z. Whether or not one finds any symbolism, omen, or irony in this is beside the point. What is important to ask is: what kind of world will those born in the XXI century grow up in?

The question here arises is will the automation of everything leave many people behind that would lead to disappearance and disappointments? Or will it urge humanity to redefine self-actualization? Will the appreciation of one’s potential no longer be defined by the success he has achieved so far or the net-worth? When it becomes unnecessary for a significant portion of the population to be working, will then the humankind would be able of adapting the value system to allow for a guilt-free leisure, to encourage more creative exploration and also recognize the value of lifelong learning?

Just a few days after the e-commerce giant from the Silicon Valley dazzled the world by introducing Amazon go and it has made its first commercial delivery by drone. The fantasy world that we have imaged, the cashless shopping and flying cars- seems to come true as an unexciting reality of today. Although, this fantasy has been too real for people whose livelihood are bullied by it. Let us imagine a scenario about the jobs of the retail salespersons and the cashiers in the U.S. that have been fully automated; where we are looking to adding 7.5 million people to the ranks of the unemployed.

In contrast, since the beginning of XXI century, the American economy has been adding, an average, 0.8M jobs per year. Whether it is Uber, Apple, Google, Tesla, or any other company that is working on bringing a viable driverless technology to the today’s technology market. But, here again, approximately 3.5 million jobs in America are likely to disappear in a blink of an eye, should such technologies be becoming commonplace. Loss of just those two narrowly-defined professions could undo 14 years’ worth of job creation.

Afar those powerful examples, an extensively-shared blog on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda platform highlights that roughly half of all jobs will be lost to automation in none less than two decades. One could take the support of looking at past experiences — where some vocations fade away, but the new ones come in their stead. Many analysts argue, though, that this time will be different. If those predictions come true, and we are indeed heading for a work-less future, now would be high time to kick off a policy discussion on how we must prepare for it.

Just as we cleverly recognize that the world of tomorrow will have much less employment, the job-creation delivery continues to dominate our political discussions. This well-known tomorrow may take a decade or maybe more to arrive. Undoubtedly, some version of it will — and burying one’s head in the sand is no solution. Focusing on the skills necessary to compete for the yet-to-be-invented jobs is only part of the puzzle. As the gap widens between population growth and automation on one side, and job creation to meet the needs of our machine-powered future on the other, we have to begin making serious adjustments to maintain social cohesion.

What if continued automation of work delivers productivity gains that can be distributed among the population without the need for everyone to contribute in a traditional way?- be it legal research, or medical diagnostics, or writing of newspaper articles. Should such future be imagined? It would require a major paradigm shift in how our society is organized, how we define contribution, where we find fulfillment, and how we draw meaning from our daily activities.

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