The Future of Work: Bright or Bleak?

Created by Nathaniel Thoreson |

Machines first began automating human labor 200 years ago. Textile workers were hit hard when their bosses learned of the free, constant and near-flawless work that could be done by textile machines. Retaliating for their lost jobs, the Luddites took to the streets and beat, broke and burned their mechanical counterparts.

Today, millions of people around the world are in danger of their labor being replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Experts in the field, including Google’s Director of Engineering, agree that the ‘singularity’ could be reached as soon as 2029. The technological singularity refers to the time when machines will be intellectually indistinguishable from humans, leading to a new era of civilization – which may be upon us in just ten years.

Programming a machine to do a repetitive task like putting on a car’s tires, or making a textile, is easy (and has been for a while). As the singularity approaches, it is no longer just blue collar labor that is at risk. High level, cognitive jobs may be replaced by the machines that used to sit on our desks.

One study predicts nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in the next 15 years. In 2017, The Telegraph released a report ranking the jobs most likely to be replaced (see if your job will be replaced here). Some of the top candidates for replacement were: tax preparers, mechanics, sales people, office administrators, referees, loan officers, cooks and even nuclear power reactor operators.

The jobs least likely to be automated require a high level of emotional intelligence and high-level of creativity. These include: programmers, therapists, teachers, chief executives, graphic designers and architects.

Here in North Dakota, some of the state’s most popular professions are in danger of being automated. At the top of the list are office administration, sales, transportation and food preparation. Together, these industries account for 8.1 percent of the state’s employment. Meanwhile, agriculture – which directly or indirectly employs roughly 25 percent of North Dakotans – will see AI advancements in harvesting, commodity analysis, drones and general labor.

What happens in the future will depend on the social responsibility of corporations, the actions of regulators and the preferences of the consumer. The future could be bright… or bleak.

Scenario 1: The economy changes. Many of the Luddites saw their entire livelihood come crashing down when automation transformed their jobs. They did not understand the improved standard of living, work opportunities and economic changes that were around the corner. From this economic transition, new, better, more productive jobs were birthed. Perhaps history will repeat itself again in 2029. AI will inevitably replace many jobs, but it may also bring humanity into a new economic state with new forms of labor that we cannot imagine. If this scenario takes hold, the economy and labor will look drastically different than what we know today.

Scenario 2: Everyone is fired… forever. With every major economic shift, the economy has changed to accommodate new kinds of labor; but in this doomsday scenario, that pattern could come to an end. Unemployed Luddites were able to shift from one form of unskilled labor to another with relative ease. Today, a rapidly changing labor market means staying ahead of artificial intelligence. Additionally, technology is moving much faster today than in years past. Artificial intelligence’s exponential pace will be impossible for humans – and policymakers – to keep up with. Luddites competed with rudimentary machines; today, we compete with simulated superintelligence. When programmed machines can do more than their competitors, humans need not apply.

To account for the incredible job loss AI could usher in, some propose creating a Universal Basic Income funded by a corporate AI tax. While this idea has received support from tech entrepreneurs and a wide range of scholars, it has also been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike.

For now, humans will continue to work and hope their boss doesn’t introduce a machine that will soon be their replacement. 

Meet the Author

Nathaniel Thoreson is an intern with the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise and the director of communications and co-founder of Webblen. He is studying marketing, political science and a certificate in sales at NDSU. The views expressed in this article belong to the author. 

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