AI, robots won’t free us from work - they’ll make our jobs worse

Posted on : 2022-06-13 17:21 KST Modified on : 2022-06-13 17:21 KST
Ultimately, predictions that the stable middle class will collapse, leading to greater polarization and income inequality, are becoming a reality
A smart conveyance robot demonstrates serving food at a booth at the 2021 International Franchise Show at Coex in Seoul. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)
A smart conveyance robot demonstrates serving food at a booth at the 2021 International Franchise Show at Coex in Seoul. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)

The emergence of new technologies enriches us, while also threatening our jobs. Automation anxiety — the fear that human work will be replaced by mechanization and automation — is a debate that has raged since the Industrial Revolution.

Today, there’s a vigorous argument between those who hold that the threat of new technology is exaggerated and those who say that things are different now because artificial intelligence (AI) and robots are nearing the singularity.

Despite those disagreements, a consensus is forming that human work is undergoing fundamental changes. What will work look like in the future, and what will our role be as humans?

The 20th century, the age of work

Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, two scholars at Oxford University, predicted in 2013 that automation and other technological changes would bring mass unemployment, with around 47% of jobs in the US disappearing. In contrast, economists from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development projected that an average of just 9% of jobs would be automated in 21 member states, and only about 6% in South Korea.

The gap between the two predictions is so great because automation is also impacted by the choices we make. Technological decisions are not made automatically, without human input.

That said, there is some degree of agreement about the fact that middle-skill workers are the biggest losers when it comes to automation. The more repetitive and formulaic a kind of work is, the more likely it will be directly disrupted by the introduction of new technology. That’s backed up by statistics that show a decline in the number of secretaries, administrative and clerical staff, factory workers and salespeople.

But high-skill jobs, which require advanced levels of cognition, creativity and judgment, are not easily replaced by machines, and wages in those jobs have risen as well. Low-skill and poorly paid workers in the service sector, including caregivers, have also avoided the wave of mechanization.

Ultimately, predictions that the stable middle class will collapse, leading to greater polarization and income inequality, are becoming a reality.

Technology can drive people from their jobs, but it can also create new jobs. When automation increases productivity, product prices fall, driving consumption that in turn creates new jobs. There can also be an increase in jobs related to leisure activities, such as travel and hobbies. Thus, there’s not a linear relationship between technological development and work.

Pessimism has predominated because people have exaggerated the extent to which machines replace human labor and have ignored the strong complementary relationship between automation and human work, says David Autor, a scholar of labor economics.

Are things really different this time around?

The 20th century was an “age of work” in which the wave of technological progress aided workers, rather than shoving them aside. As technology developed, people became more and more useful.

But that balance is now collapsing.

Daniel Susskind, author of “A World Without Work,” says that as the machines of today — made more capable by AI and big data — replace human labor, they’re even impacting high-skill jobs that require professional knowledge, intuition and judgment.

Susskind says that people once assumed that repetitive and rote tasks would be handled by machines and that the final decision would be made by human beings. But thanks to the development of AI, which is based on deep learning and other forms of big data, machines have begun to replace human judgment.

Data-based AI is already encroaching on much of the work done by professionals such as doctors, accountants and attorneys. Rather than replacing humans in all jobs, AI is assisting us in certain kinds of work, or in certain facets of work, with superhuman capabilities.

Until this point, machines have supplemented workers’ abilities rather than replacing them, Susskind said. But in the future, that trend may be reversed. While machines will not replace us in all areas of work, they will take on more and more. That could lead to an era of technological unemployment, in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

Beyond technological determinism

Many object to the assumption that AI and robots will inevitably lead to mass unemployment, describing that as a dangerous example of technological determinism. Focusing solely on our fears about automation narrows our interest to how we can adapt to and survive automation. In turn, that blinds us to the possibility that humans can choose to proactively create new forms of work and practice.

Another point worth noticing is that the assistance AI gives human workers is emphasized, while the human labor that goes into AI is hidden. Robots get a lot of press when they perform simple care work, but human care work is taken for granted.

“Companies build an image of being innovative by emphasizing that AI functions autonomously while concealing the fact that AI is supported by low-wage workers with job insecurity,” said Ha Dae-cheong, a professor at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology.

The threat that humans face in the future is not so much that AI and robots will take over human work, but rather that the quality of human work will keep getting worse. The steady jobs of the past are being broken up into small gigs that are being parceled out to low-wage workers in unstable jobs.

The critical question is how we can maintain high-quality jobs while coexisting with AI and robots. In the end, it’s a question of what future we want, and how much value we place on human work.

By Han Gwi-yeong, researcher at the Hankyoreh Human & Digital Institute

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