The “Bits & Bäume” conference will be held in Berlin from 30 September to 2 October 2022. “Bits & Bäume” is a civil society alliance in Germany. The inaugural conference took place in 2018. Hiace Online is the media partner for this year’s conference. In this guest contribution, Jonas Cole provides insight into his lecture “New World, New Work – A Reflective Approach to Tomorrow’s World of Work”.
Rarely has any other field of technology been discussed as lively outside of specialized circles in recent years as the field of artificial intelligence. At the same time, it seems that there is still a lack of understanding among the general public about what exactly so-called AI is supposed to be and what tasks are appropriate to ultimately complete it.
Jonas Lorenz Cole studied philosophy, mechanical engineering, and human-computer interaction in Berlin and Nottingham. He works as a freelance musician and conducts research at TU Berlin on artificial intelligence and its incorporation into creative processes and social contexts.
Concerns of right and wrong
Such an unknown technology, but at the same time it is said to fundamentally change our lives and our society, motivating in many places fanciful speculation about end-time scenarios in which we are warned or suppressed by machines that surpass us in every respect. However, these ideas belong in the realm of imagination and have little to do with the state of development of artificial intelligence and its foreseeable future. Indeed, it would be appropriate to replace the now popular, but far from controversial, term “artificial intelligence” with a term that is less misleading and ominous. Because aptly named algorithms and programs, however impressive their achievements may be, are not “intelligent” in the sense that they can be compared to human intelligence. More precisely, they are no smarter from a qualitative point of view than “traditional” software or, moreover, from mechanical devices. Roughly speaking, they are vastly better at finding regularities in data sets and applying them to other data sets in turn.
The gist of the matter is that this is already enough to complete most tasks that arise in our daily lives faster and more reliably than we can. This is an advantage wherever it is a chore most people are happy to stop. However, a potential problem arises as the descendants of these activities eventually secure our livelihoods: it is already clear today that the labor market will be transformed primarily through the gradual implementation and improvement of AI. In the foreseeable future, this can be expressed in the almost complete disappearance of entire professional groups – from professional drivers to various employees in logistics, sales and call centers, to data entry jobs or process control.
Even more succinct, however, is the fact that almost all professions largely consist of tasks that can soon be automated with the help of artificial intelligence. This means that even if many job titles persist in the next few years, the tasks involved in people and therefore the number of hours required will decrease.
Is a social crisis looming?
Will this automatically lead to a social crisis? It’s hard to say, and it depends first on how much we can draw from our history in this matter, which has taught us thus far that more automation leads to safer, more skilled, and often better jobs overall. Expert opinions can be divided into two camps.
On the one hand, there are those who assume that current technological trends will benefit workers in much the same way they have in the past, as they create more (and better) jobs in general than outdated ones.
On the other hand, there are those who anticipate a crucial point in the development of automation technology, after which there are no longer enough tasks that a human being can perform faster, better or cheaper than a machine system. No one can say for sure which of these scenarios best describes our future.
The massive demand that currently exists for skilled workers, despite a weak economy and the pandemic, which has created strong incentives for automation, shows that not all indicators point to an imminent explosion in unemployment numbers. However, this may simply mean that the critical point that would cause such an explosion has not yet been reached. Once a technical system is able to perform a task better – and above all cheaper – than a human, a point that can soon be reached in terms of driving a car, for example, everything can happen very quickly.
What is left for people to do?
Of course, the social and political framework in which such a development takes place is just as important as to the extent to which we head toward a crisis. Reducing the number of hours required can result in a shorter work week as well as fewer and worse paying jobs, depending on the decisions politicians and businesses make. This is precisely why it is so important to tackle the problem today and set the course for a world where artificial intelligence plays a much bigger role than it does today. The first thing to do is make it clear that losing the amount of work isn’t the only problem we face and it probably isn’t. As the quality of work left for people, the quality of accommodation in our environment and many other factors are also affected by automation.
To find an example, it is worth asking the question which occupations or jobs tend to be most affected by automation. In principle, it is easier to automate repetitive tasks in environments that are as controlled as possible (such as assembly lines or Excel spreadsheets) and can often be automated without the use of artificial intelligence. At the same time, acquiring or developing related technologies is usually still expensive, which means that companies have to balance investments and savings. Ultimately, this creates a trend that OECD countries have already highlighted in the 2019 employment outlook: highly qualified occupations that simply cannot be automated, as well as those in the low-wage sector that are not financially worth automating, will remain. For the mean, on the other hand, there is an increased risk of vulnerability, which can increase social injustice. Even if this development is more likely to apply to traditional technologies than to artificial intelligence, it is clear here that the social consequences of advanced automation are significant long before any extreme situations emerge.
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AI can also do creative work
The same is true when looking at the quality of tasks left to human workers as machines take on more and more work. Because even if it seems that they are essentially unpleasant, monotonous and boring tasks that can be avoided soon, the future repertoire of artificial intelligence is widespread. Even creative processes, professions that require human contact or a sense of language, or even more complex intellectual tasks such as process improvement are no longer our exclusive domain.
Ironically, as the use of artificial intelligence increases, our jobs can actually become more monotonous, while eliminating exciting tasks that also fuel our job satisfaction. The real crisis we’re headed into may end up having more to do with our general self-image than with statistical trends like widespread job losses. This makes sense, especially when you consider that many industrialized countries are currently heading towards an aging problem and may have to rely on massive increases in automation if value creation is to be kept constant. It remains interesting here to observe the other social consequences of this.
No one can say exactly where the interaction of technological and social development will take us in the next few years. However, given current technical possibilities and political trends, it is important to get an idea of where the flight could go, where protection measures should be taken in a timely manner, and where there are unique opportunities to seize. I would therefore like to dedicate myself to this pledge in my lecture “New World, New Work – A Reflective Approach to Tomorrow’s World of Work” on October 1, 2022 at the Bits & Bäume conference in Berlin. This is not just an introduction to artificial intelligence, its strengths and its current and potential future areas of application. Policy measures such as a robot tax or unconditional basic income and their consequences are also discussed in order to paint a comprehensive, albeit speculative, picture of tomorrow’s work. In this way, the potential world must be clearly visualized, which can soon become a reality thanks to artificial intelligence.
Conference organizers formulated political demands in advance. The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and values of Bits & Trees 2022.