Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: artificial intelligence

glowing screens and sleek design imagines the future of work in a command center.

What is the future of work?

Normally in September my Quotes of the Week (and some of my most popular Images of Interest) have focused on work. But increasingly in my part of the world there is a sense of massive change in progress. Work as we have known it seems to be going away or fundamentally changing. We may well ask what is the future of work?

Where are we now?

We live in a current economy of low unemployment. But there’s not much sense of prosperity or well-being in the circles where I travel–and I’m not alone.

Wages are mostly stagnantIncome disparity is growing. Even more than globalizationrobots are taking more of the “gold standard” manufacturing jobs that used to be the backbone of the middle class.

We’re at a moment of change. So, then, what is the future of work?

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at Gigaom Research, says "The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy?"

People have to do something with their time. And very few of them are willing to spend their lives just idly partying away till they die. That might appeal for a while (longer to some than others, no doubt), but after all is said and done, most people actually do want a purpose in life. Many find that purpose in their work.

Beware of too much idealism

But what if the future of work turns out to mean fewer and fewer jobs? Where do people find purpose in life? Many people believe that society must place a higher value on the work that robots and AI can’t do.

Futurist Gerd Leonhard says, "The future of jobs, work and education: the return of human-only skills Subjective reasoning, imagination, negotiation, questioning, empathising, storytelling, connecting, creativity, design."

But human-interaction jobs, hands-on caregiving and individual interactions, as well as many types of creative work, have long been undervalued in our culture. These are in what is called the service sector. Is that the future of work?

Habits change slowly. What has been valued and prioritized in the past will by sheer mental habit tend to be valued and prioritized well into the future. The future of work may well include more “service sector” jobs and “gig work.” But will that somehow translate into well-paying jobs, even though it has seldom done so in the past?

Certainly there are entertainment superstars (standouts in sports, music, etc.) in the service sector who rake in massive profits, but they’re the rare exceptions. Highly skilled tech workers who can manage whole factories full of robots also will number relatively few, out of the general population. They’re the outliers. 

Humans may be doing things that only humans can do, but current trends seem to indicate many won’t be making middle class incomes doing them. Doubt my analysis? Quick check: how many wealthy early childhood education teachers do you know?

Here's a photo of a young woman teacher with four children, with a question: "What can you do with an early childhood education degree?"

What, then, is the future of work?

It’s likely going to be a development of several forces, not all of which are anticipated yet. A 2014 canvass of experts in related fields by The Pew Research Center yielded slightly more positive predictions than negative, but the responses were almost 50-50. Everyone agrees it will be different

Optimists suggest maybe more of us will be able to find interesting, creative workor, at least, suffer fewer physical hazards and less boredom. Some policymakers warn that government will need to build in “guardrails” to help us develop a human-friendly workplace in the future. Some, like Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, favor a guaranteed minimum income to offset jobs lost to automation.

Inspirational writer Jonathan Lockwood Huie said, "Find a time and place of solitude. Look into the distance, and into the future. Visualize the tomorrow you are going to build; and begin to build that tomorrow, today.

Whatever directions the workplace evolves, it’s clear we should be having the conversation now. We all need to have a say, regarding what is the future of work.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Edicia for the futuristic looking command center image; to The Pew Research Center, for the quote from Stowe Boyd; to Futurist Gerd, for the “brain illustration” image on the future of jobs, work, and education; to Rasumussen College for the “What Can You Do with an Early Childhood Education Degree?” image; and to Jonathan Lockwood Huie’s website and Dream this Day for his advice about building the future.

To automate, or not to automate? Is there value to the human element?

A Glimpse of the Future 

Last week I took a first look at some of the jobs that have been increasingly moving over to automation, and a few that might see more automation and fewer humans doing the work in the future.

In some cases this might not be a bad thing. In other cases, the robots may not do as good a job as humans might. A couple of cases-in-point leap to mind: bank tellers and retail store checkers. Which do you prefer?

Love ’em or hate ’em (I know people who feel both ways), these machines seem here to stay.

I’m older than dirt, so I remember before they had such contraptions. I remember having to plan to get money before the bank closed for the day or weekend, and how you always talked with a human being before you could complete any transaction.

I kind of liked it (confession: I still don’t own an ATM card, out of security concerns. Planning ahead: it’s a thing.), but then, I live in the Midwest, where bank tellers and grocery store checkers are apparently friendlier than they are in some other parts of the world. I like to get to know them, in the fond hope that if someone they didn’t know came in and tried to wipe out my bank account, they’d question it. I feel quite certain my bankers at Kansas City’s Country Club Bank would. Thanks, guys!!

I also remember before there was a self-checkout line at the grocery store. I even remember before they had bar codes on the groceries (what a pain that was!), and you had to watch the checker to make sure s/he didn’t make an error or ring something twice that you only bought one of. Of course, now when the machine steals your ATM or credit card information, you have few ways of knowing, so is that a net gain? Depends on for whom, I guess.

There’s reportedly now a trend toward automating fast-food service, unfortunately driven in part by the industry’s resistance to paying its employees a living wage. I can see how an automatic timer to pull the fries out of the hot oil at the penultimate moment might be a good thing, but completely removing all or most of the people? That’s a farther stretch for me.

You see, we’ve actually had automated fast-food delivery for a long time. They’re called vending machines, and they aren’t actually noted for their-high quality products or their ambiance.

Granted, Mickey D’s isn’t long on “ambience” either, but I kind of like to chit-chat with the smiling teens or senior citizens at the counter. Call me weird, but I prefer dealing with people, over figuring out the interface on yet another dang gadget. I’ve kinda perfected the human interface, at least to some extent, and I have this weird notion that people should be respected, even when they have low-end jobs.

An automated fast-food “restaurant” looks an awful lot like a glorified vending machine to me.

As I see it, the whole key should be playing to strengths. Robots and automation do some things way better than people. Business Insider interviewed Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington School of Law with expertise in robotics, who said, “For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks.” All of the applications we’ve looked at so far in both this and the previous post on this topic have been in that category.

Calo thinks, however, that robots are now, or soon will be, capable of moving beyond “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” It’s a fine line to define (sorry for the rhyme), so where do we draw it? If robots and automation can lift us beyond those “dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks,” isn’t that a net gain? I think it definitely is. If they can ever design a Roomba that cleans the potty, I’m all in!

Ivan Fourie encountered this friendly store clerk in Kyoto 2006, and immortalized her in a photo.

But people right now (and for millennia) do/have done way better at some things than robots and automation have managed so far. The determination to push automation/artificial intelligence beyond those basic limits won’t stop. (we’re talking about humans with an intellectual challenge. Of course they’ll pursue it as far as they can).

But just as industry doesn’t want to talk about the full cost of their initiatives (including environmental and human damage), so the people involved in the “second machine age” don’t want to talk about ALL the costs of their initiatives.

Are these Chinese robots cute enough to be worth their cost in human devaluation? Are they worth the effort of putting “friendly store clerk” and her siblings all over the world into financial devastation?

Would their AIs put good people out of work that they need? Don’t we all need people who are a positive part of their community? The friendly 7-Eleven clerk who brightens our morning? The bank teller who keeps our accounts safe? The shopkeeper who grows her small business locally? The first-generation immigrant family who runs the gas station? The custodian who keeps the school clean and well-maintained?

What’s the human cost of the fancy machines? Do they make life better for the humans in the community, or only for the corporations running the businesses?

I think we’re at a crossroads, in our contemporary life. We can look globally at ALL the costs of the decisions we take, or we can keep on looking only at money in a system skewed to ignore some of the most important costs of all.

Our choice.

Our future.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the future-vision graphic. The photo of the Safeway self-checkout is courtesy of WonderHowTo, and the photo of the ATM machine is from The Northeast Today; many thanks to both of you! The cynical minimum wage meme is from Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report.” Your thanks is that I acknowledged where it came from, dude. You certainly illustrated my point, anyway. Many thanks to NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for the photo of the automated fast-food restaurant. I am grateful to Ivan Fourie’s Flickr Photostream for the the friendly store clerk’s photo. Many thanks to Business Insider for the photo of the Chinese food service robots.

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