Will Artificial Intelligence make people “useless”?

Throughout the course of human history, society has changed drastically, and with it, the way we work. Numerous challenges as well as innovations forced people and society to adapt to the new reality. For example, the industrial revolution enabled people to move out of mechanically repetitive jobs and lead to an uptick in cognitively stimulating jobs. With the drastic increase of the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in many different areas of our life, it is becoming clear that AI will fundamentally change our working culture and the world as a whole.

“What will happen to the welfare state when computers push humans out of the job market and create a massive new ‘useless class’?”

Yuval Noah Harari

The historian Yuval Noah Harari outlined the issue in his book Homo Deus. He warned that the consequences of highly automated labour processes and AI will lead to massive unemployment and the rise of an economically and politically “useless” class. Harari’s book triggered a controversial debate about AI and the future of work. Optimists highlight that technical innovations in the work force, such as AI, have led to great increases in economic wealth and therefore increases in individual well-being. On the contrary, some doomsayers draw a much more pessimistic picture of the future, warning of a spike in unemployment due to the replacement of jobs by AI algorithms.

But how will AI change the working world? Will an increase of AI in jobs lead to mass-unemployment and the collapse of our economic system with a consequential “useless” class as a new social class? Or will we be able to integrate AI into a symbiotic working process which will increase our economic growth and well-being?

Yuval Harari speaking about workplace automation and potential consequences.

What makes people “useless”?

How useful an individual is to society is often measured by their labour or economic output, as such, those that produce most are seen as the most useful.

A person’s utility then depends on whether they have a job and what it entails, putting the highest value on those working in essential sectors, such as healthcare, education and law-enforcement. This also implies that unemployed people, or those in jobs that don’t have a positive impact on society, are seen as “useless”. According to these statements, we can define the class of “useless” people to consist of the unemployed and people in jobs that do not benefit society as a whole.

The unemployed

Being unemployed is usually defined as the situation where someone is actively looking for jobs but not succeeding in getting one. Unemployment such as being under-educated, educated in a field where the demand of labour is already met or having some sort of mental or physical disability which prevents individuals from working.

Unemployment is often seen as undesirable, since those that are unemployed are unable to add value to society by means of contributing to the labor force, which, in contemporary societies, is frowned upon. In return for all the benefits that governments provide for their citizens, the latter are expected to spend the majority of their life working, supporting their government’s efforts financially by means of paying taxes. And for society to advance, effort will have to be made and work will have to be done, and from this perspective, the unemployed do not contribute.

Useless jobs

The definition of a “useless” class of people extends further than just the unemployed, as many employed workers, in fact, do not contribute much economic or societal value, sometimes even slowing down progress. A significant part of the workforce today has jobs that, if they were to be scrapped, would not negatively impact society at all. These “useless” jobs cover a wide area of different fields and employees, locking hard-working individuals into a life of boredom and feelings of worthlessness, examples being doormen, receptionists and corporate lawyers. Those working in such positions are often aware of the redundancy of their job, but would often only admit this in anonymity, out of fear of being fired.

But with AI arriving on the scene, things will not remain the same forever.

What change will Artificial Intelligence bring?

Many companies have decided to apply machine learning to increase their productivity. Machine learning and AI algorithms are capable of processing a large amount of data and making specific predictions out of patterns found in said data. Moreover, when making use of the latest hardware, they are able to execute processes using collected data in an extremely short amount of time with high precision. Therefore, AI algorithms are able to replace employees that perform repetitive processes and execute the tasks quickly and accurately. The widespread adoption of AI has already begun and it is currently being used in a variety of different fields. In recruitment, for example, AI software is used to replace tedious tasks such as screening CVs. In marketing, AI algorithms make it possible to individually target people with advertisements for specific products. Almost every other field makes use of AI in one way or another, this increased application of AI in companies leads to a dichotomous debate between doomsayers and optimists regarding AI at work.

The Doomsayers

It is predicted that a wave of digitalisation will happen in the near future and initiate a change in the job market as was never experienced before. An Oxford study, conducted in 2013, famously predicted that half of the jobs will be at risk to be replaced by AI or robots. Moreover, another article by Towardsdatascience stated that people lay the groundwork to be replaced themselves by complaining about jobs where they perform tasks requiring “mechanical” movements, comparable to those of a humanoid robot. Therefore, the process of automation has already begun and it will only increase in intensity in the future.

Given that certain job positions containing repetitive processes, such as secretaries, schedulers or bookkeepers, are likely to be replaced by AI, a high number of people will have to be retrained into higher-skilled roles in order to stay competitive in the job market. Therefore, even though more jobs will be created, these jobs will often require more highly educated employees. Individuals who are not able to keep up with the pace of these changes could be left behind in unemployment as the “losers” of the digital revolution. This would result in a new societal class being born, consisting of people that are not able to find a new job after being outcompeted by AI.

In 2016, 12% of national income was received by the top 1% in Western Europe, compared to 20% in the United States. In 1980, 10% of national income was received by the top 1% in Western Europe, compared to 11% in the United States. Source: World Inequality Lab, 2018. 

Furthermore, the large-scale automation of jobs could additionally increase inequality between specific groups of people. There is already a crucial income gap between between low-paid workers and top earners. In 2016, the richest 1% of the US received 20% of the national income. This trend could get even more drastic with the rise of AI. A digitalisation gap could emerge between people who lost their jobs to AI, those earning an income by developing and training AI algorithms, and a small and wealthy elite towering above that owns the AI platforms running the world. This unbalance in the groups of people working jobs susceptible to replacement by AI and a group of highly educated individuals working with or developing the algorithms could initiate a setback in equality in the work force and therefore society as a whole. To give an example, around 72% of the jobs that are likely to be replaced are executed by women. Replacing these jobs with AI would mean a higher imbalance between male and female employees and a higher percentage of specific societal groups in a new social class of “useless” people.

The emergence of a new “useless” class and growing inequality between societal groups could have expensive consequences. Rising unemployment and consequential lost income would force the welfare state to increase their expenses to support the people in need. Moreover, not only societal inequality but also the gap between different incomes would widen, due to only a small percentage of people receiving the benefits that AI brings, by either being involved in its development, or by owning the intellectual property rights.

To sum up, the doomsayers predict that an increase in AI will lead to a spike in unemployment and inequality, resulting in a class of “useless” people, as suggested by Harari.

The Optimists

Lamenting about the damnation of humanity due to new innovations and novel technology is a tale as old as time. For example, the industrial revolution, among many other historical periods of change, was thought to make a human workforce obsolete. This time it’s people’s cognitive abilities that have to compete against machines, not their physical strength, a development that seems frightening and puts the superiority of one of the core human qualities into question. However, even though it is undeniable that the way we work today will be disrupted by wide-spread adoption of AI, the future does not have to be as bleak as it may seem.

Until now, humans have always found their way to adapt to a changing environment. The fact that humanity possesses this ability to adapt is unsurprising, of course, considering Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which states that the fittest species (i.e. the most adaptable to a change in environment) will survive. Especially technological innovations, despite being highly criticised, have brought humanity and society more benefits than negatives. In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker described how the general well-being, health and quality of life increased significantly and consistently throughout history, mainly as a result of technological and scientific innovations. AI could also fall in this category of innovations that disrupt our current society, but bring along many positives that outweigh the negatives. The problem of job loss, for example, might be solved as several studies suggest due to solutions that come with the technological advancements.

The redistribution of the industry based on automation at work.

To give an example, a study by McKinsey found that there could be enough new jobs created to counterbalance the impact of automation, given sufficient economic growth, innovation and investment to make up for the replaced jobs. As a conclusion of their study they suggested that the US will experience a positive job growth throughout 2030. But how can job growth happen if so many jobs are getting replaced? New technologies establish the ground for new industries to expand and individuals to move into these new fields of work, such as tech support for the users of novel software. Moreover, due to an increased productivity and efficiency of companies that use AI, industries might be able to expand or offer lower prices for their products, which would initiate consumers to buy more, leading in turn to expansion and a growing industry. Therefore, even though robots replace a lot of jobs temporarily, they also create jobs on a long-term basis. The best approach to handle the upcoming change in the work culture is therefore to build a symbiotic work relationship between humans and AI.

So where are we heading?

Expected gains from AI in the different regions of the world by 2030. Source: The macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence, PwC, 2018.

The optimistic view of the future thus seems to us more convincing than that of the doomsayers. Even though we acknowledge that AI will change the way we work, we believe that with the right preparations catastrophe can be averted. Technophobia has never been realistic. Quite the contrary, so far technological innovation has brought great benefits to the job market as well as individual and societal well-being and wealth. Hence, it is likely that AI will have the same positive consequences. PwC, for example, suggested that AI will bring a gain of trillions of USD and a significant rise of the GDP on a global scale. Even if we tried to resist the technological progress, we cannot deny that we are already in the process of a transition to an automated, AI-powered society. Therefore we might as well adjust to the change and maximise its benefits while reflecting on the potential dangers, taking preventive action to minimise them.

Moreover, we feel that AI is misunderstood in several ways by critics. Although “Artificial Intelligence” seems like a very threatening concept, AI at the moment is far from anything that could be referred to as “intelligent”. The AI that is in use now is actually nothing more than cleverly designed software implementations of basic linear algebra, applied to large amounts of data to find correlations between different variables. And such simple algorithms can and do provide a lot of benefits to many companies, since we have so much data to work with and every correlation they find could be an interesting insight. Anywhere where there is a lot of data and a possibility for improvement, AI can be of use.

Therefore, the applications of AI are, now and in the near future, limited to data-driven decision-making, which means that only such tasks could truly be replaced by AI. Additionally, AI can perform tasks that humans would never realistically be able to do, for example finding a correlations between thousands of variables by analysing millions of data points. This means that AI could very well be the missing piece of the puzzle. If both AI algorithms and human minds would focus on doing what they excel at, a powerful symbiotic relationship would be formed between human and machine, each complementing each other to solve problems of the new world and the old. With such a relationship between humans and AI, people could shift into jobs that require more human qualities, such as creativity, empathy and humour. These jobs are likely to be more fulfilling and interesting to employees than the repetitive work they replace.

However, rising inequality is a risk that should not be ignored. Of course, people transitioning into different fields and positions does not happen overnight. As the doomsayers suggested, inequality and unemployment might rise because people do not have the right qualifications and education for the available jobs. Preparations will have to be made and trainings should be established in order to support people throughout this change. In fact, this process is already ongoing. There is an upward trend of people being retrained to work in technical fields, such as software development. Acknowledgement of the potential risks and timely preventive action would therefore enable us to enjoy the full benefits that an accelerating change due to AI could bring and prevent a “useless” class of people from arising. Instead of mass unemployment, there would then be a more gradual shift to different kinds of work.

Even the doom scenario of a massive loss of income due to unemployment could be prevented. All that is required is government action to expand welfare benefit systems to guarantee the basic needs to all individual, regardless of work status. One way of achieving this is true a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, where each citizen receives a basic income from the state, regardless of their employment conditions. Many countries have already started trials with implementing UBI. The expenses of such programs could be financed by, for example, increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, which additionally decreases social inequality.

“The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not know which.”

Professor Stephen Hawking

As suggested by Stephen Hawking, the debate whether AI will bring great benefits or doom humanity is still ongoing and and not yet settled. Given that we are now in the middle of a process of digitalisation and AI is already on the rise, it would be foolish to attempt to stop this process purely out of fear of the unknown or technophobia. It is likely that due to this technological innovation new jobs will be created, new industries will develop and new solutions will become possible – solutions to the newfound problems and to the old.

Automation is often seen as the devil to be feared, but it might actually be a way to free people from repetitive, mindless work and to give them the chance to move into jobs requiring uniquely human skills that are harder to replicate, for instance creativity, empathy and humour. Therefore, the accelerating change that AI will bring should be seen as a chance to adapt to this environment and to embrace the positive aspects, such as the expansion of existing industries and the creation of new jobs. Moreover, we do have enough time to prepare for the future of employment and to support employees with re-education and the creation of jobs that rely on human qualities.

Having this in mind, the idea of a “useless” class of people that can’t work or have nothing to strive for seems like a dramatic exaggeration, a bleak vision of the future that can be prevented from becoming reality by taking the appropriate action.

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