In a few weeks time, customers entering Mitsubishi banks in Tokyo will be met by Nao. He can discern your emotions, speak 19 languages and speedily, charmingly, direct you to the service that best meets your needs. He never complains, arrives late with a hangover, or takes a holiday. Nao is 2 feet tall and was ‘born’ in Paris. If his trial works out, he’s going to be taken on by all Mitsubishi banks. Yes, he’s a robot.
As is Pepper, an ‘autonomous’ robot who is helping to sell coffee machines. He can chat to you about the way you like your expresso, adjusting his sales pitch according to your tone of voice. He might not look like George Clooney, but he’s way cheaper.
Across Europe, 7000 automatic tellers will now take your order at McDonalds restaurants. Unlike their flesh and blood equivalents, they can store endless amounts of personal data about your spending habits and calorific intake.
These are just the latest examples of the automation of labour – it’s currently a trickle, but it’ll soon become a flood. Thanks to artificial intelligence, no job is safe. That article you just read on your news feed? Chances are it wasn’t written by a journalist, but by a piece of code. Automated content can take any bunch of stats and turn it into a readable story.
Automation is about to transform the very knowledge industries that used to think they were safe from the perils of artificial intelligence. According to a recent study by Oxford University, nearly 50% of all US jobs are at risk of automation by 2030. Yes, fifty percent.
The jokes about arts graduates taking your Big Mac order will have to be rewritten – they can’t even do that now. But there’s a deadly serious discussion that has to take place about our responsibility, as a society, to the growing numbers of young people who played by the rules, got their degrees, but still can’t find meaningful work. ‘Mal-employment’ (working at a job significantly lower than your qualifications) and ‘underemployment’ (working fewer hours than you’d like to) are now rife, but at least they’re providing a source of income.
As we’ve seen in Greece and Portugal, we now have armies of graduates with no work to do. With increasing automation, their numbers are only going to grow, leading to more civil unrest and social inequality. Education’s traditional role, of preparing tomorrow’s workforce, may well have to shift. Classes in empathy for those worse off than yourself, or in how to live a meaningful life without paid work, or how to re-use and re-purpose, might seem far-fetched, but could be vital for keeping increasingly polarised communities together.
The jobless recovery is real; artificial intelligence is set to devastate the jobs market still further. The question for us all is this: how do we build future societies that give dignity, meaning and purpose to lives without labour?