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Labor Day, Robots, and a Better Future...

Diego May

For decades we have celebrated work as an integral part of the human experience. We yearn to be involved in activities that not only provide for our basic needs, but give us a sense of purpose. Work, and doing work that we love, keeps us focused and motivated. Not all work is created equal though, and the future of work is complex.

For that reason, conversations about AI and robotics automation displacing humans from work touch very deep emotions that translate into complex feelings about economic policy and political conversations around universal or conditional basic income (UBI and CBI respectively).

We are living in interesting times as humanity deals with AI, climate change, robotics, happiness, a sustainable planet, and many other challenges.

It is clear that technological progress will not stop, and with that raises the probability of metal, plastic and silicon-based automatons entering the workforce. In his book, A World Without Work, Daniel Susskind predicts a world where humans have to understand that they will be doing other things but work, which takes it to an extreme. Carl Frey from Oxford University says 47% of currently employable activities could be executed by robots and artificial intelligence (AI), in most cases covering specific tasks, thus augmenting the existing human workforce. It is also obvious that in 2030 we will still walk our streets, go to our malls, and continue working, but as we do we will interact regularly with robots, whether they are software-based or pieces of physical hardware moving around us. This new work with robots will soon feel completely normal.

Both the public and private sectors are now engaged in conversations about automation and its implications. We certainly expect some polarized and emotional arguments for and against automation from both sides of the table as the conversation progresses. I am optimistic about this vision of a collaborative future with robots, for good reasons.

First, less work can be good for humanity. Humans are so much more than work. We are so beyond doing repetitive tasks (if context allows us) and we can be creative, caring, empathetic, understanding, and yes: we can be so human! When apocalyptic views on robots see the bad side, I can easily see a collaboration that frees humanity of some tasks, allows people to augment what they do, adding that human layer on top. More importantly, I can envision humans having more time for those important family and friends aspects of life, as well as for that highly cognitive operations where we can thrive.

Second, pride and purpose can evolve. Both are important and qualities that we tend to try to find in our work. As automation integrates into our world perhaps it is healthier to look for personal pride and a sense of purpose in our work and other activities. In the coming world, people's pride and purpose at what they do may increase as they solve problems creatively to lead and orchestrate their silicon-based machine counterparts to perform dangerous or repetitive tasks that will be seen as safer than human hands.

Third, quality of life and quality of work will improve. Better management of the work/life balance will have a huge impact on our society. When we spend more time with friends and family and increase leisure time, a key ingredient to happiness, we allow creative innovation to kick in. It is important to also mention that the quality of the work we do (see Deep Work for interesting ideas) is also under scrutiny by academics (see Zeinet Ton’s work at the Good Jobs Institute). Companies exploring automation are already considering how this new world where the quality of human work matters more than ever. 

Finally, Increased efficiency is needed and can be achieved. This is a requirement for a sustainable future, period. In a world that will soon reach a population of 9 billion, we will need to generate more food, more energy and more products in sustainable ways. We need to think seriously about efficiency. Work as it exists now cannot meet these requirements. The efficiencies needed to harness our natural resources require human-machine collaboration and orchestration on a whole new level.

Humanity has gone through many different revolutions, from social to political to industrial, and of course labor. I have no doubt we will succeed with the automation revolution. It is fascinating to be part of this revolution. To participate in forums and conversations with both advocates and detractors is exhilarating. Some extremists see the revolution from a very negative perspective, imagining Skynet and the apocalypse behind every new technology innovation. These concerns are not entirely unfounded, and conversations like these can help develop the right policies to find an equilibrium that makes sense for a harmonized workforce. 

As said, I am an optimist, and I expect that by Labor Day 2040, we will have more time to celebrate new and interesting jobs, created by leveraging human skills in different ways. Humans will  have more time to find purpose, building lasting and more profound relationships. I foresee a future where companies are thinking about job quality alongside increased efficiency. But for this optimistic scenario to become a reality I see the importance for good government and NGOs helping shape the conversations that will define our future, evolving current policies to balance the most important aspects of this coming revolution.

Labor Day is a time to celebrate work and achievement. In current times it is a good moment to think about the future of work and what role we want to have in shaping a better future. Happy Labor Day, everyone!