How to Work Today

How to Work Today

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By Patrick Macfarlane

Rapid developments in robotics and artificial intelligence seem likely to put humans out of many of our current jobs in the foreseeable future. This poses big questions: will new jobs be created? If not, what will we do with our time, and how will resources be allocated when there is no need to pay for labour?

In the meantime, however, we still have to work in order to survive. But how should we do it? Let’s say that like 2.2 million workers in the UK, you work in financial services or an ancillary professional service. You have a desk-based job that is primarily related to market redistribution: the identification of people who hold capital and people contemplating activity that requires it, and the making of agreements that facilitate interaction between the two.

Your daily tasks revolve around the consideration of documents that attempt to predict, govern or analyse these interactions. All of the work you do is already assisted by machines. Machines tell you about the market value of commodities and companies, collate and display information about current events, show the text of relevant rules, and enable you to create, amend, send and receive the documents. Soon, machines will be able to consider a set of facts within the context of an internet’s worth of data, identify and apply the right rules, and create the documents that you do today – except more quickly, accurately and cheaply. You will not be required.

Today, you work long hours. From Monday to Friday, you spend at least twelve hours of the sixteen you are awake either travelling to work or being at work. Your work is likely to provide a daily psychological challenge: it involves limited physical movement and in-person interaction, it is repetitive in nature with limited scope for discretionary decision-making, it features limited sensory stimulation, and it provides limited opportunities for philosophical contemplation or political action. As a result, the prospect of your work being taken over by a machine may be a welcome one.

However, in the meantime, you still have to continue doing this job.

Will you be needed to do it for the next five years? Ten years? The rest of your working life? Should you work harder to keep up with machines that could compete with you? Should you give up competing? Is there a legitimate argument that only a human ought to be doing your job? How can you motivate yourself to do tasks which will be done automatically in the future?

Should you change jobs to something which machines will find harder to do? Should you stick with your current job, even though you dislike it, because it is one of the jobs that it will be harder for a machine to do? Will your children have to do a job like this? If not, what information should they learn, and what kind of attitude to work should you impart?

In this series of short articles, I will explore these questions and more, with a particular focus on what is “right”: for our psychological well-being, the state of our society, and the species of which we are all members. Tomorrow will be a new day – how should we work today?

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