John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that his grandkids would work 15 hours a week. As my first post in this series and recent media coverage bear out, 90 years on, we haven’t quite gotten there.
Yet, commentators such as Filip Poutintsev point out that we may have misunderstood Keynes’ real meaning: The 15-hour week is not necessarily achievable by everyone. That a few of us, including Poutintsev himself and, according to his observations, others who are typically self-employed knowledge workers, can achieve it proves the prediction right. It is indeed possible to live decently by working 2 days a week, as long as your rate is itself decent, say $100 per hour.
The robots have come
The basis of Keynes’ thinking is that technological change would render it unnecessary to work any longer than those 2 days. And so it has come to pass with robots. For a few decades, robots have been contained in factories, particularly Korean and Japanese ones.
Lately though, they have started to appear in nonindustrial settings, such as in restaurants, both in the front and back of the house, welcoming humans and serving pizza (in Korea, where else?), as well as flipping burgers (in California). Robots are also beginning to staff hotel reception desks (at the Henn na hotel in Osaka) and customer service centers (from Anna at IKEA to TOBi in Vodafone. Assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), robots also drive cars and trucks (as tested by Volvo at the bottom of a Swedish mine, presumably to avoid contact with humans).
So far, so very blue-collar
As my colleague David Smith and I described in a recent article for Strategy Magazine, we are now well into the third of four eras in nonhuman intelligence systems:
- First were systems that do something (an assembly line robot building Subarus, for example).
- Then came systems that think (such as Amazon’s Alexa).
- We are now surrounding ourselves with systems that learn (Amazon Rekognition is a good example).
- The next phase is systems and machines that feel — it’s a bit sci-fi today, but is undoubtedly the next frontier.
So, it would be wrong to limit the impact of robots to the realm of low-skill and low-paid roles. Because robots are now found in truly surprising places — the boardroom in the form of Vital, which stands for “validating investment tool for advancing life sciences” and is a pharma-tech investment advisor, or on Instagram as avatars like Lil Miquela, doing whatever Instagram personalities do.
These AI-enabled machines are carrying out increasingly creative tasks with, seemingly, true agency. AlphaGo Zero has learned, on its own and in 40 days, to play Go and beats the best humans. Others write novels and movies (rather than just feature in them). Yet others compose music, both classical and contemporary.
Will I lose my job then?
The big debate raging alongside the apparently irrepressible rise of the machines is whether they, the robots, AI and other thinking systems, will help us do our jobs more easily or simply take these jobs away. Yale University graduate and author Malcolm Frank is among many who thinks robots will enhance jobs, rather than destroy them, which is why he calls them cobots — robots as coworkers.
Researchers from the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, on the other hand, estimate it will take 120 years for all jobs to be fully automated. Some, like translators, taxi drivers and shop assistants, face extinction much more quickly — within the next 20 years.
I tend to think this “help or hindrance” dichotomy is the wrong question to ask. For two reasons:
As Harvard economist Richard Freeman says, one of the things Keynes underestimated in his 1930 paper was the human desire to compete. Even if we don’t have to work, we’ll convince ourselves we must. Evidence gathered by the World Economic Forum on jobs that did not exist 10 years ago shows we’ll have no trouble inventing new professions to keep us busy in the next 10 or more years.
And if we really don’t work, universal basic income payments will keep us active as consumers, boost our self-confidence and ensure that we continue to interact with the economic and social environment around us.
But, either way, robots are changing the way we, as humans and as societies, think about money and value. And this will be the subject of the third article in this series.