Dangers of a human future of work

There is a danger that our human focus on the future agenda is leaving us blind to a group that may become increasingly excluded as the market for their skills crashes

The erstwhile counter-intuitive idea that the rise of the machines will enable a renewed valuing of what it is to be human, has been helpful as we think about the future of work. Rather than simply operating as ‘inefficient robots’ we can celebrate what it is about us that is not automated or possible to replicate with an algorithm. We are however, at risk of slipping into a way of talking about this idea of being ‘human’ that is unquestionably laudatory. Yes, we are human, (all too human?) but that brings with it a wild frontier that is not without its dangers. We need to move beyond ‘humans good, robots bad’.

Just as the currency of the flexible, adaptive and creative human rises in this brave new world, the price of those who supply manual or unskilled labour falls. There is no obvious vision of future in which we all rise together and see the kind of shared benefits that economic growth in a high employment society can bring. There is a danger that our human focus on our nearest and dearest can leave us blind to a group that may become increasingly excluded as the market for their skills crashes.

The existence of this group (and the falling price of their labour) may hold back the development of technologies and increase social division as supply outstrips demand; buying manual labour could easily become cheaper than automating a process. We can already see the first shoots of this, for example, in public and shared toilets. It is utterly possible to design, manufacture and sell self- cleaning toilets but, with a healthy supply of cheap human labour, we choose not to do that. In 2017, a robot travels to Mars to undertake scientific experiments while a human scrub crap off porcelain bowls. We mustn’t duck the reality that this could easily be a model for the future.

If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that human beings, particularly where they share a common identity, are capable of treating other human beings in the most horrific ways. For all our wonder, generosity, charity and sense of kinship we must also acknowledge our fears, jealousy and drive away from unity towards division. In 2017, it could be argued that we need not even open the history books — we can simply switch on the news.

It is not unusual when thinking about the future to draw inspiration from science fiction which, after all, tends to be produced by people with fantastic imaginations setting out a vision of the future. One of my favourites is the dystopian Megacity One of 2000AD. In the ‘Meg’, unemployment runs at over 90% and those who aren’t the elite become ultimately disposable. We have seen in the UK recent debates around migration focussing almost exclusively on the benefits or not to the economy of people coming into the country. This creeping view of human beings as being measurable by their net economic contribution is dangerous as we approach a new world of automated design, production, service delivery and retail. The potential vulnerability of a section of a society who consume far more than they produce could hardly be overstated.

So, it is right to focus on developing people who will be able to thrive in the new world. But we must never assume a comfortable and supportive future for those who will not be able to thrive. There is a real risk that more and more people become net consumers rather than net contributors and we need to begin thinking about how we want to respond to that challenge.