When looking at how automation, robotics and AI will change the future of how people work and what jobs they will have there seems to be two main camps of thought:
Capitalistic/Free Market view that looking back at the history of economic transitions have shown that each time we faced productivity improvements there were always a corresponding shift in the labor force that maintains the level of employment. Somehow we transitioned from 90% famers to 2% during a great urbanization trend. Later, we transitioned from a largely industrial economy to a knowledge and services one. Not only have we navigated those shifts and today have a relatively low unemployment rate, but compared to 100 years ago, women have entered the workplace. There are more people than ever with a job. The capitalistic view that this has held true since Adam Smith suggests that perhaps it is a universal economic law that will continue to hold in the face of the AI boom.
The pessimistic view is that AI is different, that knowledge work is the last human product that we have to offer so once it is replaced by an AI there will be no jobs left for us to do. AIs will work all day and night, with better accuracy, faster and smarter than we ever could. The algorithms will chip away at our most demanding careers until one day we reach full unemployment and the world collapses.
In truth, we have been living in a world of increased knowledge automation since the 80s. Software has been automating people out of a job since MS-DOS. And while software engineering is a significant industry that has absorbed a many of those people, not everyone has jumped ship to become a computer programmer. Just prior to the current pandemic situation, unemployment was at record low levels, despite 30 years of software automation.
Where people have ended up I think is an indicator of the future we might have to look forward to as the programmers themselves are replaced by AIs.
The major trends seem to be towards the gig economy, side-hustles, and contracting. Everyone young wants to be a youtube star, and I think the next generation is getting an early lesson in how to promote products. Patreon shows how people have been willing to send money to people who are producing interesting content. This seems like a universal. People will always be able to pay others to see them do something – play sports, video games, build crazy inventions, or simply tell their story.
The economy will continue to function so long as people find reasons to send each other money.
Unlike the impossibility of a 1950’s era farmer worker forecasting a future of software developers. Today, I think we can see what’s coming next. People will become natural sales people, refering customers using the same language they pickup from watching youtube and instagram. “smash that like button” or it’s evolution will become even more common as people become independent publishers in big or small ways.
The future of work is that it will look less like a job, and more like ways we can earn money.