In late 1928 John Maynard Keynes took some time out from the economic issues of the day to write a whimsical essay imagining life in a hundred years’ time, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. He concluded that in the developed world people would be wealthy enough not to have to work and we would instead be faced for the first time in human history with a different problem: how to use the freedom from pressing economic cares to occupy our leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for us, to live wisely and agreeably and well. Keynes’s economic forecast was fairly accurate in terms of the increase in wealth, although there are still significant minorities in most developed countries unable to afford basic necessities. He did introduce the term “technological unemployment”, but couldn’t have foreseen the extent to which the digital age is making this such a frightening reality with a range of occupations from truck drivers to brain surgeons predicted to be redundant in the immediate future. So whether we like it or not, many of us may be forced to consider Keynes’s challenge of how to occupy whatever time is left to us wisely, agreeably and well.
The most apocalyptic book on what the future might have in store is Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari concluded his 2014 best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, with a prophecy that homo sapiens is on the point of being replaced by completely different beings with different physics and fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identities. In his latest “brief history” he provides a detailed account of why and how this change will occur. At the heart of Harari’s thesis is that we are entering a new era dominated by data; that we have entered the age of datism. In ancient times when people were faced with a problem they climbed a mountain and looked at the sky. When religion arrived they looked to the pope or read the Bible. When humanism replaced religion they looked into their hearts; know thyself, follow your heart, do what feels good. But now humanism is being replaced by datism, “a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and big data”.
Apparently we are now merely chips in a grand system that no one understands. Just as free-marketeers believe in the invisible hand of the market, datists believe in the invisible hand of data flow. If our humanist lives were organised around a combination of individualism, free markets, democracy and human rights, these are all being undermined by developments in twenty-first century information technology and bioscience: “the free individual is just a fictitious tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms”. The author claims that our choices are no longer our own; their range is being determined by external algorithms as the “surveillance capitalism” practised by Google, Amazon and Facebook becomes even more ubiquitous. Indeed some of these companies are already claiming to their advertiser clients that they know more about us than we do ourselves.
The consequence of all this is that most humans will lose their economic usefulness: “homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm”. In a universe full of data flows the value of any phenomenon is determined by its contribution to data processing. In the past humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom (strangely enough no mention here of Eliot, who made the point more concisely back in 1934) but Harari suggests that humans can no longer cope with the data flow and that therefore the work should be outsourced to electronic algorithms whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain. There will of course be a small group of super-humans (perhaps one per cent) who have managed to secure themselves an upgrade through wearable and implanted devices enabling them to live forever and exercise control over the rest of us, who must remain content with “upgrading our status on Facebook”.
Harari doesn’t mention Keynes either, but the implications of his thesis is that by 2030 we may all be forced into a life of leisure whether we like it or not because we will have been made redundant by machines and their algorithms, which will be vastly more efficient than ourselves. History, however, is littered with “end is nigh” prophecies which turned out to be groundless. People have always worried about the implications of new technologies. In sixteenth century Britain Elizabeth I refused to grant a licence for a newly invented knitting machine because it might put hand-knitters out of business. Not everyone has been convinced by Harari’s analysis: John Naughton, the Observer’s resident cyber-sceptic commented: “the technocratic ideology underpinning our current obsession with ‘big data’ will eventually collapse under the weight of its own absurdity”.
I’d like to believe this, but a more balanced analysis of the subject in Richard and David Susskind’s The Future of the Professions, makes a convincing case that a profound and fundamental change in employment patterns is imminent. A father and son team, Richard, the father, is a lawyer who has been an adviser to the chief justice of England and Wales while Richard, an economist, has also been a UK government adviser. They have studied the likely impact of technology on a wide range of professions, from lawyers to the clergy, from medicine to tax advisers, and conclude that there will be a “steady decline in the need for flesh and blood professionals” because “we are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way the expertise of these specialists is made available to society”. They believe that machines will perform more and more tasks that were once assumed to be the preserve of humans.
The kernel of their argument is that just because machines are not smart in the way that we are it doesn’t mean that they’re not smarter than we are. The following example makes this a little clearer. Machines don’t think in the way a world chess master does but because they can process two hundred million chess moves in a second they can beat a world chess master. The Susskinds don’t labour the point about “big data” but they acknowledge that the increasing amount of data available ‑ every two years we create as much data as we did from the beginning of time to 2013 ‑ means that increasingly humans are overwhelmed, whereas the “massive data-storage capacity and brute-force processing” power of computers can easily manage. In health, a variety of online programmes are now in place which can often outperform doctors and we are close to a time when each individual will have their own medical data and the computing power to process it “from womb to tomb”, with the ability to prevent illnesses before they happen. Education is already benefiting from technology as more lectures on a range of subjects from world-renowned experts become freely and easily available online, moving teachers from being the “sage on the stage” to a “guide from the side”. They predict that the clergy, dwindling for other reasons, will be replaced by “Godcasts”.
The book contextualises the process by pointing out that moving from a print-based society to a digital society enables the automation of a wide range of knowledge and the standardisation of a wide range of systems that enable much of the work previously carried out by human professionals to be carried out more efficiently and effectively by machines. They predict that very soon, for many professional problems, people will be able to describe them in simple language on their computer and receive “a reasoned response, useful advice and polished supporting documents all to the standard of an expert professional practitioner”.
The authors are broadly sympathetic to these developments, arguing that for too long the professions have created an unnecessary mystique about their practices and rituals: as far back as the nineteenth century Dickens referred to legal papers as “mountains of costly nonsense”. However their main complaint is that they are essentially undemocratic; the best expertise being available only to a small minority. The Susskinds also highlight a lack of transparency, arguing that too many professional firms prioritise earnings per partner more than quality of service. To the argument that machines will never provide the “human touch” or empathy they make the point that machines can now respond to human emotions; computers can read, write, listen and talk, while many professionals are not exactly endowed with great empathetic skills. To survive, they argue, professionals will need to acquire new skills, will need to communicate differently, will need to make more use of social networking for communication, understand big data, data-mining and machine learning and may need to extend their area of expertise into new disciplines.
But there will still be much less work available than before and the authors pose the question: what will be left for humans to do? They don’t provide an answer but recommend that we urgently revisit our ideas about full-time employment, the purpose of work and the balance between work and leisure.
That won’t put an end to the effects of increasing automation but new forms of employment will keep emerging as the prominent UK economic commentator Will Hutton points out in his latest book, How Good We Can Be. He is also worried about the effects of the digital and data revolutions, arguing that they change our understanding of the economics of almost everything. However he believes that new employment opportunities will emerge, predicting a rise in what he describes as “micro-production”, citing the growth of micro-breweries, micro-distilleries and a plethora of locally based artisanal food companies. We’re already seeing this in Ireland. He could also have added a growth in butchers, bakers and candlestick makers and of course the ubiquitous baristas and perhaps even hand-knitters. Hutton also senses additional employment growth sectors, including coaching and mentoring in a range of human well-being areas, and addressing the world’s “wicked” problems, particularly in relation to the environment.
Hutton’s main concern about the advance of digital is that it is exacerbates the inequality in Western societies that has been growing since the late 1970s. He compares the effects of this advance to an advancing but untreated cancer which can be suffered for a long time in ignorance. In the end, however, the cancer is life-threatening, while the erosion of jobs could result in serious social unrest. He attacks the “asinine proposition” that a fundamentalist faith in free market principles combined with libertarian levels of individualism is the ideal way to run society but confines his proposed remedies to adjustments in the conditions for businesses to be eligible for joint liability. Requiring businesses to accept they have an obligation to employees and the societies in which they operate is admirable but will do little to reverse inequality.
A more wide-angled look at the future of work is taken by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in The Hundred Year Life, based on the premise that most people born in the twenty-first century will have a good chance of living that long. Unlike the scarier implications of datism, which may never happen, this one will and we are advised that the more we study the implications and plan accordingly the more fulfilling our lives will be.
Until around the middle of the twentieth century there were two kinds of people; children and adults. Then, some time in the 1950s a new species arrived from America, the teenager. A little later, as life expectancy soared, the retiree became an established feature in society but in this century we are likely to see the emergence of new categories; the Explorer, the Independent Producer and the Portfolio. We are already seeing signs of all three. Explorers are likely to be aged between the late teens and late twenties where young people will extend the gap year concept as they take time out to investigate the world; “discovering what is out there, how it works, what they like and what they are good at”. The independent producers will probably be in their fifties deciding to leave their conventional career jobs to set up a new venture based on what really interests them rather than an entrepreneurial ambition to make money. Portfolios are likely to be in their sixties and seventies; they’re winding down a little but want to be fully occupied, involved in a mix of activities from small scale consultancy work to giving time to a charity, NGO or community group; “converting recreation time into re-creation time”. However the new categories are not as age-specific as the children, teenagers, adults and retirees.
The emergence of these new categories as life is restructured in response to longevity heralds the demise of the three-stage working life; education, work, retirement. However, if the full potential of breaking out of the three-stage life is to be realised we will need to plan carefully, particularly in terms of education, which we will need to return to at regular intervals to acquire new skills. We will also need to be more financially literate because our earnings will not be as predictable as in the past and the longer you live the more money you need. This will be especially important in the second half of our lives, because the businesses we work for in the future won’t provide pensions and governments will be increasingly unable to make up the difference. We also need to take health and fitness more seriously or the opening up of new life-stages will be lost on us.
The authors are conscious of the predictions of the threats posed by artificial intelligence and robots and the possible loss of jobs in a variety of occupations but they also point to the changing nature of businesses. In the 1920s the average life of a company quoted in the S&P 500 was sixty seven years, by 2013 this had reduced to fifteen years and increasingly small companies are surrounded by an ecosystem of smaller enterprises and start-ups. They make the point that “it would be easy to predict that technology will lead to mass unemployment but things in real life tend to turn out more complicated ‑ and ‑ humans will always have the advantage when it comes to problem-solving, empathy and creativity”.
The Susskinds and other big data enthusiasts would dispute the last point but it’s only a matter of degree. The main conclusion from all of the books reviewed here is that the impact of the exponential increase in data combined with the enhanced processing power of computers will mean fewer jobs in the future and that increasing longevity will exacerbate the problem.
I don’t think we should give up just yet. Governments need to revisit our existing structures of employment, pensions, education, especially adult education, and leisure. Bertrand Russell, thinking along similar lines to Keynes wrote that “to be able to fill leisure time intelligently is the last product of civilisation and at present very few people have reached that level”. There is now an urgent need to bring everyone to “that level”.
Big data will undoubtedly play more of a role in all our lives in the future but we need to remind ourselves of the disturbing future envisaged in Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel The Circle, about the consolidation of power among the Silicon Valley tech elite and think about how they can be reined in before we are all helpless serfs in a new feudal landscape controlled by the croc and T-shirt billionaire nobility.
Finally we should keep in mind a remark attributed to Henry Ford over a hundred years ago: “If I had relied on what people said they wanted I’d have made a faster horse.” Today big data, by analysing millions of bloodlines over the years, billions of training schedules and trillions of diet variations and combining all three sets of data, could probably make a faster horse. In fact there’s probably someone in Tipperary already on the case. But what the machines would not be able to work out is that people didn’t really want a faster horse, they just wanted to get more quickly from A to B. It took Henry Sapiens to crack that.
Books referred to in this essay
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, 2016
The Future of the Professions, Richard Susskind and David Susskind, Oxford University Press, 2015 (pbk edition 2017)
How Good We Can Be, Will Hutton, Little, Brown, 2015
The 100-Year Life, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, Bloomsbury, 2016
John Fanning is a former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising