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The release of Open AI’s ChatGPT has sent shockwaves throughout the world. Along with its AI graphics generator Dall-E, AI now appears poised to do the kinds of work once thought exclusive to humans.
These developments are prompting an anxious discussion about the future of work now that AI is increasingly doing a wide range of tasks, from making hamburgers, caring for the sick, writing papers, making paintings, analyzing legal documents, and deciding who to hire and fire. Just last week the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association announced that it is replacing its unionized workers with chatbots.
The warnings are dire. In 2017, corporate consulting firm McKinsey estimated that 60 percent of all jobs are vulnerable to some degree of automation. It estimated that 400 to 800 million workers will become obsolete by 2030. A 2023 report by employees of OpenAI who invented ChatGPT warned that “around 19 percent of workers may see at least 50 percent of their tasks impacted.”
What does that mean for the future of work? The accelerated development of AI forebodes three possible futures.
AI will have an impact much like any other new technology. AI is yet another tool that according to a 2019 study makes us work harder and produce more for less pay. Many types of work will become obsolete and fewer high-wage and many low-wage jobs will be created to service the technology. According to a 2022 study, this is expected to further expand the wage gap. We will continue to be what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously called “appendages of the machine.”
A bleaker future points to the entire human population becoming entirely unneeded. The planet would become populated by the have-nots for whom the only job is making our robot overseers to protect the ruling elite living in comfort on the moon, much like what’s depicted in the Matt Damon film “Elyssium.”
A more hopeful future could promise less work, better quality of life and even the abolition of work itself. As we produce more in far less time and with little effort, the fruits could be shared globally to meet all human needs.
Regardless of what the future promises, the future of work is not simply a question about work. To understand what is happening to work we have to understand what is happening to humanity. The future depends on how we decide to organize ourselves. Will we implement a new social contract that redistributes wealth in exchange for fewer hours of work at safer and more fulfilling jobs? Or will we rise up and abolish the life-killing capitalist system and democratically seize control of and run the economic system and abolish work altogether?
The permanent disappearance of stable work is only catching up with us in the Global North. Work for a specific boss, in a single workplace and with regular pay has long been non-existent for most of the human population. According to the ILO, in Africa 85.8 percent of people have no formal jobs. In Asia and the Pacific, it’s 68.2 percent, in the Americas, 40 percent, and in Europe and Central Asia, 25.1 percent. In the U.S., the figure ranges from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 10.1 percent to McKinsey’s 32 percent.
My New Year’s wish on these pages was about the need and possibility of working less. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes expected that we could shorten the work week to 15 hours. We have never come close to that.
Instead, our unions have long ignored the issue of work, who controls it and how much we do. Since the 1950 UAW and GM “Treaty of Detroit,” our unions have cut deals with the boss to work more in exchange for some of the profits our labor produces. That closed the income gap for some white workers but it didn’t last. The boss responded with privatization, outsourcing, bankruptcy, mergers and now AI automation. With AI, the boss has finally found a technology that can replace every type of human labor.
The answer is not going to be the “guaranteed minimum income” scheme we hear so much about today and which was first proposed by Thomas Paine in 1797 and embraced by elite foundation funded think tanks in the 1960s.
AI inventors are now calling for AI to be regulated to avoid it being banned. Governments using it on the battlefield and to police the cities won’t ban it. We ignore scientist Stephen Hawking’s 2014 warning that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race” at our own peril.
Science-fiction books, movies, and TV shows have long seen this coming. To ease our minds about robots, they are designed to appear human, cute and non-threatening, much like the character Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Our survival will be determined by our ability to democratically control work and the economy. Too many of us work far too much for too little, while too many have too little or no work.
We work to be able to survive, even though work is a threat to our health and the survival of the planet.
Democratic control will allow us to decide what work is needed and what is not, what work is destructive and what is needed to take care of one another and meet human needs. This would allow us to abolish work as a coercive means of control and domination while freeing the full range of human creativity and expression.
Doing that will answer the question about the future of work by answering the question of the future of humanity and the planet.
Robert Ovetz teaches about work and labor at two universities. He is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” (Pluto) and the author of “When Workers Shot Back,” (Haymarket) and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few” (Pluto). Follow him at @OvetzRobert
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