Will Being Human Be Enough?
Updated: Aug 8
Themes: Work, Economy
How Advanced Technologies are Transforming Labour and What This Means Post-COVID-19
“Labour is an intrinsically human characteristic”
- Karl Marx
For nearly a century, economists have expressed concerns about how technological advancements will lead to growing unemployment and loss of traditional jobs (Keynes, 1930, pp. 20-21; Frey and Osborne, 2017). These predictions are most relevant now following job loss upheavals that have inflicted global workplaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have recently learned that an astounding 1.6 billion global workers risk permanent unemployment due to pandemic restrictions and business failures, with 6 million unemployment claims filed weekly within late March and early April of this year in the US alone (Coibion, et al., 2020c, p. 3.; Inman, 2020).
Image borrowed from razum/Shutterstock
What will become of those who are most deeply impacted? Will their jobs be replaced by automation and AI? If so, will they be provided opportunities to transfer their skills to new realms of evolving technologies? If not, then they could face darkly dystopian futures.
The intention of this brief probe is to illuminate both the positive and negative aspects of the increased usage of automation and AI as means to get work done and to point to why so many jobs are at risk of facing obsolescence. I will focus on some ways that these advanced technologies will fundamentally transform the institution of work and society itself, for better or for worse. In the context of this article, these technologies include voice automation, virtual shopping and selling, avatars and robotics. This overview will include examples from these categories while incorporating insights drawn from course readings, podcasts and outside sources to demonstrate both the potentiality and eradication of work that will occur as a result of automation and AI technologies during and post COVID-19 and will furthermore ponder the question as to whether being human will be enough advancing forward.
In actuality, almost half of all occupations in the US will disappear over the next two decades as a result of human work being replaced by advanced technologies.
Conflicting Opinions About Advanced Technologies and AI Development
I was prompted to research this topic because both historical and recent economic predictions point to massive human job loss as a result of automation and AI development (Dufresene, 2019; 2019; Keynes, 1930, Kwano, 2018; 1990; Marx). According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are no regulatory measures in place for AI (WEF, 2017, p. 50) therefore the only hope of halting the speed of these advancements is for workers to advocate for the protection of their jobs and livelihoods within their workplaces at ground level, and to promote safety-net options that will include the creation of a universal basic income plan (UBI) (Dyer-Witheford et al, 2019, p. 6; Upchurch, 2018). In actuality, almost half of all occupations in the US will disappear over the next two decades as a result of human work being replaced by advanced technologies (Frey and Osborne, 2013; Kwano (2018); Dufresne, 2020). The fact is, that the line between workers and machines is becoming more blurred than ever (Upchurch, 2018, p. 205).
Even with this knowledge, rather than robo-apocalyptic futures, some perceive the advancements of automation as also beneficial to the institution of work and to the economy (Dyer-Witheford et al, 2019). For many employers, automated voice technologies, avatars, robots and other forms of AI are a godsend since they are highly efficient, perpetually pleasant and durable, and have no biological needs such as breathing, eating, sleeping, or defecating (Witheford et al., 2019, p. 158). Moreover, AI does not risk calling in sick nor can it be infected by biological viruses. AI can undertake volumes of work that no human can live up to and lacks the need to demand higher wages or any wages at all for that matter. They are void of the desire for advancements or comforts in the workplace.
All of these qualities comply with long held neoliberalist human demands of working without breaks, vacations and fair wages (Stanford, 2008). In many respects, capitalist ideals of work have forced many workers to become human robots. Capitalism is to blame for playing a big role in the de-skilling of humans since at least the early 20th century (Braverman, 1974).
Others also argue that the capitalist interest in AI power is fetishized for the sole purpose of attracting investors, and that predictions of “a jobless future” are exaggerated and do not have the clout to overthrow “capital’s continued exploitation of human workers” (Witheford et al., 2019, p. 145).
I tend to disagree with this latter viewpoint, and side with the more cautious and sobering reality which leans towards massive universal job loss due to technological advancements. As Max Haiven claims (2020, p. 2), there will be no return to normal post-pandemic and the new normal could very well be a “vindictive” one wrought with increased alienation, exploitation and oppression, which in context will likely include either working alongside advanced technologies or being eliminated from work all together.
Benefits of Advanced Technologies: Current and Post-Covid-19
From more hopeful perspectives during the pandemic, there are certain advanced technologies which have generated positive outcomes within the realms of online selling and shopping, healthcare, and female empowerment.
Online sales alive and well at Amazon. Advanced automation has certainly propelled the mega online shopping/selling company of Amazon to new heights during the pandemic (Guardian, 2020). Paul Mason (2015) praises the functionality of Amazon because it offers an avenue of “increased buying and selling power” (p.28) that unlike thousands of retail businesses and small business ventures, has remained virtually accessible during the entire onslaught of the pandemic. This company has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis, reporting sales of $75 billion in the first quarter of 2020, which is equivalent to earnings of $33 million per hour (Guardian, 2020). Even though $4 billion of revenues will be invested into COVID-19 protocol costs and increased employee wages, the company’s owner, Jeff Bezos, has just increased his personal wealth to an astronomical $145 billion (Ibid).
While it is commendable for Bezos to provide safe and secure workplaces for his employees, he is positioned – should he desire to become a Carnegie-like philanthropist – to go many steps further and to extend his generosity to assist in the start-ups of hundreds of worker cooperatives in the US alone. Bezos has more than enough wealth to assist in the economic recovery of US businesses felled by the pandemic, and can now choose to break the pattern of private capital hoarding to re-investing in societal and economic expansive rescue efforts (Stanford, 2008, p. 312). Given his and his fellow billionaires' track records however, we shouldn’t hold our collective breaths for Bezos et al. to be our saviours.
Virtual avatars. Video conferencing tools have provided benefits to those forced to work from home as a result of pandemic restrictions (Enderie, 2020). One such technology called Glue is a step up from ZOOM and uses avatars to enhance participants' experiences while at the same time eliminating the need for travel, which to some workers causes stress, exhaustion and separation from loved ones. Apparently, avatar usage allows for greater multiple-bandwidth streams which are less likely to crash compared with other similar virtual meeting technologies (Ibid). From an emotional perspective, working from home can be challenging for many, since it can increase distraction levels, add to workloads due to family responsibilities, or may for others, lead to loneliness (Ibid).
As Endrie (2020) maintains, policies are needed to govern the myriad issues that arise when work-from-home enforcements are in place and as the trend towards working from home becomes a permanent option for many. This example shows how AI in the form of virtual avatars can provide comfort and stimulation in the workplace while offering the potential for new trajectories of policy-making in virtual settings as a new form of human work moving forward.
Big data collection in health management. Scientists from AI company DeepMind are working on the protein analysis of the virus to better understand its nuances and growth patterns (BBCA, 2020). Although according to data scientist Nuria Oliver “no decisions are fully delegated on the algorithm”, AI has the capacity to analyse vast quantities of diverse data and assist in the creation of survey development (Ibid). These features will assist in more streamlined care to elderly within their homes and in hospital settings along with identifying weakened infrastructures within health systems globally (BBVA, 2020, pp. 3-4). Fortunately, at least at this stage, humans are needed to analyse the data results which signals the demand for work in the area of scientific medicine.
Impacts of AI in health systems and female empowerment. During this first pandemic of the 21st century, AI is positively contributing to the fight against COVID-19 in areas of health technology and in promoting new robotics initiatives. This has empowered young women in Afghanistan for instance, who otherwise face barriers to education and opportunities for community development (BBVA, 2020; Hadid, 2020). To follow is a brief summary of some of these findings.
A developing story in Afghanistan demonstrates how advanced technologies can lead to female empowerment. A group of Afghani high-school students who otherwise face barriers to education and community development, were presented an initiative by Harvard doctor Douglas Chin to construct vitally needed ventilators using Toyota car parts (Hadid, 2020). Ventilator shortages have made the symptoms associated with the virus more difficult to treat in this country (Ibid). This was a challenging proposal since in Afghanistan online shopping is virtually non-existent nor are there electronics stores, but the women were able to locate the needed parts to construct ventilators at a fraction of the cost of standard medical ones (Ibid).
In this case, robotics has served a dual purpose; first to provide opportunities for disadvantaged women to carve futures in tech entrepreneurship, and secondly, to manifest alternative means of treating COVID-19 symptoms. As one of the participants mentioned in this podcast “if I can save just one life, I will be happy” (link Hadid, 2020 PODCAST).
The Face of New Technologies
How insightful it would be to be a fly on a wall in a meeting between Elon Musk (OpenAI), Mark Zukerberg and Jeff Bezos, all multi-billionaires who share keen interests in the advancements of AI development (Dyer-Witheford et al., 2019). Here in Canada, quantum computing pioneer Geordie Rose, of Sanctuary Cognitive Systems Corporation (SCSC), is intent on replicating human intelligence to the pinnacle of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).
However, the capacity of machines to achieve “full human emulation” (Dyer-Witheford et al., 2019, p. 2) is according to Rose; still a long way off (Ibid). So far, the prototypes resemble “creepy androids,” (Silicoff, 2018) but moving downstream, there is potential for these technologies to reach high levels of sophistication which could “alter the basis of capitalism itself through the creation of Life 3.0” and lead to a stream of capitalism that “continues without humans” (Silicoff, 2018; Tegmark, 2017).
Although visionary Marx fiercely maintains that labour is “an exclusively human characteristic” (1990: 283-4) he could not have foreseen how AGI could reach the potentiality of labour and actually create value ((Dyer-Witheford et al., 2019, p. 110). Humans, as we are discovering, may not be so unique after all as new forms of inhuman labour are being created. Will this ultimately displace humans and render us useless in capitalism’s expansion, or provide as the critical technology visionaries and philosophers of the 1960’ and 1970’s foresaw: pathways for human self-actualization, as toil and necessary work are increasingly passed on to machines and time is opened up for human self and collective flourishing?
Though this overview provides a mere glimpse of the impacts of advanced technologies/AI during and post COVID-19, what is certain is that the institution of work is caught in a uniquely historical state of transition. When the government handouts run barren and those who have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic and begin to lose their homes and access to the necessities of life, they could face futures that are not too far removed from dystopian sci-fi narratives such as Mad Max, where the need for survival surpasses all moral boundaries.
As mentioned previously, there are measures like universal income and investments in worker-cooperatives sponsored by governments or the extremely wealthy that could offset pathways of despair. On the other hand, there must also be a ceiling in place for how much personal wealth one needs to accumulate, which is an issue that needs to be addressed by working humans, not AI. As Dyer-Witheford (2019) claims in his darkly persuasive forecast, in order to keep up with inhuman AGI labour, humans would have to dehumanize in all aspects of mind, body and morals to compete with AGI workers and either “chose between capitalist transhumanism or death and even species extinction” (Witheford, et al., (2019) p. 159).
The future may not be as bleak as all that, at least for a while. As long as humans play active roles in the design and implementation of work and in AI, then their access to production is maintained though to a lesser degree (Schweickart, 2016). This holds true even if it means re-inventing labour and policies to include working with the rapid integration of AI and other advanced technologies, while advocating for the protection of human work by moving away from capitalist ideals. The future of work is definitely in a flux and whether or not being human will be enough remains to be seen.
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