When a dishevelled zealot holds up a placard on a packed street, shouting "the end is nigh", they are at best politely ignored. Yet when the media does it, people buy newspapers. So it should be no surprise that the narrative of an imminent jobs apocalypse at the sleek, chrome hand of automation should have been so successful in recent years. People love a threat.
Some businesses profit from threats, which perhaps explains the origin of the robots-taking-our-jobs hysteria: consultancies publishing a succession of breathless reports into the coming age of AI, which conveniently enough can become a profitable opportunity if you pay for their expensive digital transformation services.
The reality is that, as with any other attempt at long-term prognostication, we don’t really know to what extent automation will disrupt or indeed destroy the job market as we know it. The future is inherently unpredictable, although it would be odd to dismiss the clear trend of the last ten, 40 or even 200 years (depending on which industrial revolution you want to start with): we are automating more.
In the most benign analysis, this will mean different, not fewer jobs. Machine learning will automate many of our existing tasks, freeing human beings to do what human beings do best - tasks that involve people skills and creativity. Our working lives will become rich and rewarding, as we adapt and retrain.
Others aren’t so optimistic. For a start, it’s debatable that humans are actually going to be better than machines at tasks like creativity. Then there’s the fact that the more we automate simple tasks, the more opportunity is restricted to the intellectually gifted. As brain-enhancing pills remain in the realm of science fiction, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of us. And who’s to say even the brainiest can adapt or retrain as fast as the quickest deep learning algorithm of ten or 20 years’ time?
That might seem like a bit of a downer, but maybe not. A future where robots do all the work seems scary for two reasons: firstly, because it means labour will lose out to capital, which would tend to increase inequality; and secondly because we believe our work gives meaning to our lives.
The first problem is a very real one, and it’s quite likely that rising inequality in much of the world is driven by this trend already: when Henry Ford got rich, he brought the city and people of Detroit with him; it’s altogether less clear that Jeff Bezos has done the same to the communities near Amazon fulfillment centres.
But this is hardly insurmountable - governments do have the power to tax and spend, whether for a project as bold as universal basic income or in more conventional ways.
The second problem may not actually be a problem at all.
We say jobs give meaning to our lives, but that’s a very modern idea. Before the industrial revolution, you wouldn’t have found the son (and certainly not the daughter) of a farmer pondering what career would give them the most meaning, any more than you’d have found their parents resigning because they didn’t like the hours. Workaholics didn’t exist, and neither did the stigma of voluntary or involuntary idleness.
The notion that the struggle of work brings meaning to life doesn’t really apply when such relentless toil is the price of not starving to death.
Happily, we have much more leisure time than the vast majority of our forebears had, and can we really say this is bad? Leisure, spent well, arguably gives us the greatest opportunity for joy and personal growth.
Perhaps, if automation reduces or eliminates the need for most human labour, it will free us for leisure - and perhaps the boundaries between leisure and work will fade more than they already have. Even in the 18th century, Adam Smith noted that the wealthy were pursuing as pastimes activities like fishing that the less fortunate did just to survive. Who’s to say - bizarre though it may sound - that the 22nd century equivalent won’t be playing around on a spreadsheet for a spot of R'n'R?
However we choose to spend our time, we won’t necessarily be idle because, if our robot-powered economy is prosperous, there will be myriad ways of being busy.
So yes, robots may take our jobs, or they may not. Human beings may flourish in such a world, or we may not. There is no particular reason to be optimistic or pessimistic about this unknown future, only to accept that change will come, and crucialy that it’s not something that just happens to us.
In this sense the AI jobs apocalypse narrative isn’t all bad, so long as we remember that, to paraphrase the Terminator movies, the future is not set, it’s what we make for ourselves.
This article was inspired by conversations with real estate developer Markus Eidenberger, journalist Sally Percy, entrepreneur Sunnie Groeneveld, neuroscientist Moran Cerf and other guests at the Fast Forward Forum in Venice
Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images