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A World Without Work
Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond
- Read in 13 minutes
- Audio & text available
- Contains 8 key ideas
A World Without Work (2020) is an exploration into how artificial intelligence will bring unemployment to so many industries – and why that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The author outlines the history of technological progress and explains how new capabilities will allow for unprecedented productivity. Yes, many jobs will become irrelevant, but, as a society, we can ensure that everybody will be better off in this new world.
Key idea 1 of 8
Machines will replace some jobs – but they’ll also complement others.
Machines are taking over. You’ve probably heard that before, right? And it’s not hard to see where the argument comes from – every year brings new technological innovations. As computers and robots become smarter and smarter, will humans become unnecessary?
Of course, real life is not quite so simple, so no need to fear! Machines will never take all our jobs. Their effect on the labor market is much more nuanced.
The key message here is: Machines will replace some jobs – but they’ll also complement others.
Fear of technological change is nothing new. Centuries ago, at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, weavers destroyed early machines. These people – luddites, as they became known – feared for their jobs. And they did have some reason to worry; rapid technological change in their industry caused massive upheaval.
But was that change all bad?
Well, while some workers did suffer, others benefited. If a low-skilled worker learned how to use the new machines, his output increased massively and, eventually, so did his earnings.
New technology is often complementary. While it replaces some workers, it makes other workers more productive. How? By helping them with some of the more difficult tasks.
For example, algorithms that can process legal documents haven’t replaced lawyers. Instead, they freed up their time for more creative work like writing, problem-solving, and face-to-face meetings with clients.
This increased production leads to the second benefit of automation. Think about a country’s economy as a pie that everybody needs to share. Sure, machines do change how the shares in this pie are distributed. But they also make the pie itself so much bigger.
Not convinced? Well, ATMs – automated teller machines – are a good example. When they were first introduced, people feared that they would completely replace bank staff.
But let’s look at what actually happened. In the last 30 years, the number of ATMs in the USA quadrupled. At the same time, the number of human bank tellers also rose – by about 20 percent. ATMs replaced tellers when it came to handing out cash, sure. But they also freed up humans to give financial advice and offer personalized support.
The economy grew, and overall demand for banks and financial advice increased. All told, the average number of tellers per bank dropped by about a third over the last few decades. But the number of banks in which tellers could get a job rose by as much as 43 percent.