Artificial Intelligence and Employment

A common theme of today is how artificial intelligence and "big data" are going to lead to massive job losses, especially in professions regarded as "middle class" that have hitherto been immune from automation in ways that blue-collar jobs have previously been subject to.

This has been a constant fear ever since the industrial revolution and it is not transpired yet because as automation generates economic growth then new areas of employment open up. But there is a fear that, this time, the scale of what computers and robots are becoming capable of is genuinely going to cause a massive displacement of human labour.

This was first predicted by the great economist John Maynard Keynes in about 1945, that by the year 2000 the average working week would be only 16 hours. In fact, when I was growing up in the 1980s I used to read lots of books about The Future which all said the same thing - we were going to be living in a "Leisure Age" with a short working week for all.

This corresponds with the post-war spirit of optimism, when it was the belief that the benefits of society should acrue to all and not just to those who are already rich. But following 35 years of neo-liberal "Thatcherite" economics this sprit of sharing the benefits of growth seems to have been quashed. Now that we are genuinely, possibly, on the verge of automation then now is the time to revive that post-war spirit of equality and ensure that as machines replace people on a grand scale the remaining work is shared out.

This would require restrictions on overtime and the working week and probably much higher taxes on the richest who stand to gain the most by selling automation technology. We have been brainwashed into thinking that any attempt to restrict workers hours is tantamount to "interfering in the market". Well I, for one, do not think that interfering in the market is always a bad thing; in fact, careful intervention makes markets work better.

If we become prepared to change the mindset of politics and revive the forgotten spirit of equality then the new wave of automation ought to be nothing to fear and everything to look forward to. The Leisure Age could finally become a reality.


That said, I do not actually believe all the talk about worker displacement. This is based on the idea of an economy as a static entity that does not grow. It is strange that Maynard Keynes should have made his specific prediction; one might have believed he would have forecast automation as leading to a richer and more productive economy instead.

What automation will do is increase the output of each worker just as it has done in the past. The cost of acquiring an intelligent machine will never be zero because someone will own the intellectual property behind it and because robots will need to be built of materials that cost money; therefore there will always be a trade off between robots and people. And there are some jobs, such as selling, that can only be done by a person. If a robot tried to sell you a car you would just ignore it. Selling is about getting under a person's skin and trying to stop them walking away and effectively 'guilting' them into buying something, and only a person could do that. A robot GP could diagnose patients better than a person, but rather than lead to fewer doctors it might lead to a growth in areas of wellbeing like councilling and caring which are only likely to be acceptable if provided by a person.

Even in administrative jobs that are supposedly vulnerable to automation I remain doubtful. It is a widely understood maxim that 80% of time is devoted to 20% of your customers. Automation will probably mean it becomes more like 95% of time devoted to 5% of customers, but that 5% will be outside the scope of what a machine can do. A lot of commentary on this subject seems to come from people who have never had a proper job and don't understand that administrative workers typically spend most of their time dealing with awkward issues that are not routine tasks. Thus far technology such as email has resulted in people being busier than ever before. My experience of working in finance and admin is that the more technology your customers have then the more work you have to do to keep up with their ever-increasing demands.

If you have access to an intelligent machine then so will your competitors. Therefore the advantage in the marketplace will fall back onto what distinctiveness you can deliver as a person. If a robot could cook like a world-class chef and wait on tables then all restaurants will be able to do that. It may simply mean there are more restaurants in future rather than fewer people working in restaurants. Likewise, an intelligent computerised lawyer will not so much mean mass redundancies in law, it will mean that more people are in a position to be able to afford legal services in the first place. A judgement will always require a person to sign it off and lawyers will use the technology to widen their services.

Automation will, I believe, simply mean that economic growth carries on as before. By the end of this century I predict there will be a hotel on the moon that the average person could afford to spend a week in. Achieving such an advance will require that each worker has a much higher hourly output than today and intelligent machines will simply be tools to deliver that. Then there are jobs to be had maintaining and controlling intelligent machines. A person will always ultimately be responsible for a machine going wrong, so checking and monitoring them will be an industry in itself. And criminals will be able to use the technology as well so there will need to be an army of workers to keep criminals at bay, just as anti-virus software is a big employer today.

Though it will mean ongoing change, I do not believe that intelligent machines will mean there are no jobs, and no good jobs, for people in the future. We just need to be mindful that if mass unemployment does emerge from automation that we shift our political system to ensure that everyone benefits. The much-vaunted leisure age could become a reality, but sadly I doubt it and people will remain as busy as ever.