Ever since automation entered the workplace people have been waiting – eagerly and anxiously alike – for the day when the machines do all (or almost all) of our work for us.
Some believe AI and machines will render humanity irrelevant and make us all slaves; others believe we’ll live lives of creative leisure, free from drudgery and the wage treadmill.
The shift is happening, albeit slowly at the moment – we still have to repair our machines, but soon they’ll be able to repair and maintain themselves.
It’s estimated that half of our jobs will no longer exist by 2035 or so.
Even warehouse staff will be replaced by machines using tech like conveyor chains from Renold PLC.
So, we need to think about what we’ll do with ourselves and what, if any, new skills we’ll need to get by in this brave new economy.
Of course there’ll probably be the much-vaunted universal basic income to keep us all happy, but we may not even need money as we know it now.
Whatever happens, though, there’ll be a transitional period that lasts a generation or two, so everyone who will be working for the next 20-40 years will need to gain and develop new skills that are primarily intellectual or creative in nature.
It’s happened before – weavers were forced by mechanisation to leave their loft-based workshops and toil in Lancashire cotton mills, for example, but this new shift is on an unprecedented scale.
The new shift is the equivalent of asking every single weaver to learn how to design new looms, as well as to come up with the chemical formula for nylon.
Even more problematic is the fact that it’s every single weaver – how many designers and industrial chemists do we actually need?
Think about the roles and jobs that’ll become obsolete – driving trucks, buses and taxis for a start. This will also mean that some car parks, diners, petrol stations and hotels will see less business
This is why it’s likely that future jobs will involve the creative arts and science. This sounds like some kind of utopia, but it could very well happen.
Sustained by the basic income, people will be freer to write books, songs, plays and poems, or to do citizen science like harvesting and culturing the bacteria in their backyard soil to search for new antibiotics.
As yet our AI hasn’t out-performed Shakespeare and it’s unlikely that we’d want it to, as we pride ourselves on our intelligence and creativity.
Of course not everyone’s a natural playwright or scientist, so the more manually-inclined among us might choose sculpture; some people may enjoy going about their communities every day looking after seniors and volunteering in hospitals.
One unfortunate side-effect of the 40+ hour working week is that many of us don’t have the time for friends and extended family, or for those without these valuable social resources.
It’s a fascinating thought-experiment, but one that’s set to become at least a partial reality in our lifetimes.
What do you think our society will look like when we devolve much of our work to the machines?