There’s a global debate happening about what the world would look like in the next 50 years. The rise of Automation and Artificial intelligence have caused global alarm and people are terribly concerned about the future of jobs. It comes with an enormous threat to our sense of relevance because we’re losing it. Not only is the future of manual jobs threatened, but the disruptions also extend everywhere. Musicians and authors, as experts have acknowledged, are at stake of losing their relevance with new algorithms that would be able to compose and exploit human emotions better than humans can ever do. Just as climate change has attracted global attention, the unmatched power of algorithms has started conversations and strategies of survival like a response to a tragic epidemic. And as the Guardian put it succinctly two years back, “it doesn’t matter whether you’re a factory worker, a financial advisor or a professional flute-player: automation is coming for you”. It’s coming really fast.
In response, higher institutions have pinpointed skills that are required to stay relevant in the future. My school, the African Leadership University, has in fact adopted seven meta-skills that every student explores in their first year. These skills are spread out across four courses, Projects, Communicating for Impact, Data and Decisions, and Entrepreneurial Leadership. It assumes that we’re better in these areas now and in the future than machines can ever be. While this is terrific as it helps students to have a learning mindset and keep reinventing themselves to cope with challenges of the future, IBM Watson, Deep Blue, Google AphaZero and a lot of new algorithms contradict this. Skills to reinvent oneself sound incredible, but in the long-term, we need a more systemic approach since they underpin the principles that our societies are predicated on. Algorithms that drive AI prove humans inadequate of real competition and Yuval’s analysis proves that a “useless class of humans” is emerging no matter how we see it. Because Machines are not deterministic, according to him, we can’t predict the future as they are most likely to take on human characteristics, like understanding and responding to emotions and the like. They might become even better at things we pride ourselves on. And no matter how long we keep reinventing ourselves, machines will become far better and far ahead of us.
Today’s system is driven by information, and a lot of them have been thrown in the air. We’re all having some nervous breakdown and panicking about what the future would look like for us 20 years from now. And there’s too much focus on protecting jobs yet with less emphasis on saving the very humans that do the jobs. While we’re lost in irrelevant information and confusion, Yuval puts everything in perspective that “in a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power”. For the sake of this clarity, he warns us about the occurring revolution in biotech and infotech and the extreme power that comes with the combination of both. Though, as he put it “since the beginning of the industrial revolution, for every job lost to machines, a new job was created”, but with the fast pace of technological change — it is improbable that such trend might continue. And both our cognitive and physical abilities might not be able to put out with Artificial Intelligence and Automation. Shortly, AI will outperform human drivers, human doctors, and almost all relevant works that require human skills today.
We can’t stop these achievements of fully getting immense power through AI simply because they would take jobs away. We’re heading for a purely technological future where machines will have the capability to do what humans are capable of and even beyond. But Yuval throws in a solid recommendation that is hardly spoken of that “we would need new models for post-work societies, post-work economics and post-work politics. And we have to, in the first step acknowledge the inadequacy of our past “social, political and economic models” as these systems do not systematically address the new realities we’re stepping into.
Automation threatens our jobs; it’s no doubt that some will be thrown in the dust bin. But how different is this reality from current realities in most countries, with high unemployment and illiteracy? People, without AI being a threat, are already reductant and its where a new system comes as in the form of a “shock therapy”. Yuval writes that “in order to cope with the economic disruptions in the twenty-first century, we need to develop new social, economic models as soon as possible”. The underlying factor of this as he believes should be driven by principles that focus on “protecting humans rather than jobs”.
After all, the point of jobs is that we have better lives, have access to basic social services and make the most out of our time here on earth. And so Yuval believes that “nobody’s dream is to be a cashier”, but people definitely are. Sometimes they suck through them trying to make a life, paying for places they barely stay, and spending on utilities they hardly use. Some people never manage to spend more than five hours with their family because of the dictates of their jobs. We need to de-emphasize on protecting jobs. Instead, what we should focus on, he writes “is providing for people’s basic needs and protecting their social status and self-worth”. Human redundancy appears inevitable, and it’s only the systems that we can turn to for solutions. Yuval’s antidote is a Marxist utopia of state provision of basic services. Not Marxist dictatorship or working class revolution, but a democratic state that adopts Universal Basic Services as an alternative for Universal Basic Income. This is a system revamp that tax rich people and high-tech companies as a remedy for redundancy. The system approach is our winning side of the coin, and government policies in this sense would make life happier, worth it and less stressful in the context of preparing for a post-work society.
Disclaimer: these insights are from Yuval Noah Harari’s book “21 Lessons from the 21st Century”. It’s not a review, as my focus here was only a segment, a chapter if you may. I would be dishonest to term it as a review whereas the book covers more lessons and insights than I can ever absorb here. Grabbing the book would be the most resourceful thing to do. It’s more than what cover tells you, it’s a guild to the future.