The concept of robots taking our jobs goes far beyond comic books and sci-fi movies. From the first textile machine in the 18th century, to the internet in the 1990s, machines have been making our professions obsolete for centuries.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest technology on the block threatening to replace human labor. Whether it’s self-checkout systems in supermarkets, or customer service chatbots, AI has already replaced a number of highly repetitive jobs. Despite promising a more streamlined and efficient workforce, the more immersive this emergent technology becomes, the greater the undercurrent of distrust.
Indeed, if this accelerates, robots could replace over two million workers in manufacturing alone by 2025, according to a study by economists at MIT and Boston University. But as this technology becomes increasingly intelligent, there is a higher chance for AI to outsmart humans and make even the highest-skilled professions obsolete.
But would that really be the end of the world? In fact, might emerging technologies unlock a potential future that leaps beyond the status quo?
In a future where machines could replace our need to contribute to the labor market, there is potential for us not to be defined by our jobs, but by a newer purpose to enhance humanity and the planet.
History tells us that industrial revolutions are always met with trepidation. Workers revolted against the emergence of steam power in the 18th century, whereas internet skeptics were innumerate thirty years ago. Whenever groundbreaking new technology or processes come along, it is natural for people to fear for their livelihoods.
But as technology evolves, our role on this planet evolves with it. We have already adapted and developed in tandem with emergent AI systems and embedded these into our daily lives. Take the driverless transportation systems shuttling us between airport terminals, or the dating algorithms helping us find ‘the one’.
Looking ahead, AI has the potential to revolutionize our collective future even further. Its promise is in its ability to make unprecedented analyses of vast amounts of data, which could achieve anything from identifying and preventing early-stage breast cancer, to studying factory operations in real-time to fix machines remotely.
AI has the greatest potential when it augments human capabilities, enabling us to work with greater speed, agility and efficiency. Imagine AI co-workers that facilitate creative brainstorming, or digital life-coaches that empower us to make more informed decisions based on an analysis of our data. A more extreme example is Neuralink, the controversial brain-machine interface in development that could enable humans to control machines with their minds.
These developments embody what we call Industry 4.0: the fourth and current industrial revolution which focuses on the enhancement of computers through smart and autonomous systems, fueled by data and machine learning. We are well in the throes of carving out a more optimized workforce with the help of AI, in which humans and machines become increasingly intertwined.
But what if we went even further and redefined our jobs to encompass deeper meaning and purpose? And built a workforce that is more conscious of the long-term needs of society?
A professional world where the lines between human and business value are blurred is already on the horizon. We are currently heading towards Industry 5.0, which aims beyond efficiency and productivity as the sole goals, and prioritizes the contribution of industry to society. It centralizes worker well-being, uses new technologies to provide prosperity beyond jobs and growth whilst considering the environmental and social impact on industries.
Look at Iceland, where the four-day working week has been an overwhelming success, or Microsoft Japan’s shorter work-week trial which resulted in happier staff and a 40% increase in productivity. Governments and companies around the world are already questioning what life looks like with less emphasis on work, while the gig economy has made it more mainstream to work where and when you want, adding to that freedom for people to define themselves beyond just their professional lives.
In this new working culture, developing AI could focus on upgrading our mental and physical abilities to empower us to work smarter not harder. The more “productive” we become in a shorter period of time, the more time we can dedicate to purpose-driven endeavors that prioritize planet and people over profit.
Alternatively, imagine a scenario where not enough workers are available to provide real-time care for the ageing population. Following the current and relentless pressures on care workers we saw during the pandemic, it’s not unbelievable. Emotive AI and computers with empathy would be able to provide an emotional response to real human needs. By freeing people from necessary and important roles such as these, we could once again carve out more time towards greater responsibilities that become increasingly urgent as the climate crisis approaches a tipping point.
Industry 5.0 is a potential stepping stone towards a more sustainable, human-centric society. Emerging technology offers the real potential for humans to achieve a post-professional era where we are not defined by our jobs, but a new purpose to enhance the human condition and the world.
But to achieve this future, issues of trust, risk and regulation of course need to be handled with care and forethought. Stanford’s one-hundred-year study on AI tells us that we are at an inflection point where the promise and perils of this technology are becoming real. While it is bringing innovations and benefits that we once could only dream about five years ago, using AI technology to replace human decision-making will inevitably create risks and unforeseen consequences.
AI is also created by humans and trained on historical data which is not void of discrimination and inherent biases, meaning that inequality could be amplified if there is unequal access to information and participation in AI. What’s more, humans are inherently productive creatures. Many of us like our jobs—they form a large part of our identity—and would view the concept of a post-profession society with skepticism if not trepidation, as an alternative future has not yet been imagined.
Overall, the question isn’t whether machines will act with good intent, or eventually become more intelligent than people. In some contexts, they already are. The focus today should be what we can do now to make sure the path is set towards an optimistic future.
With emerging technology like AI promising to replace repetitive work, a new future is unlocked where human purpose is the driving force behind our professional lives. As our impact on the planet and collective responsibility to foster a more inclusive society reaches a tipping point, the value and potential of emerging technology has never been more important. It is the duty of designers, innovators, and businesses to conceive the ideal future we want, and design tangible stepping stones to getting there. We must not limit our ambition when painting this future, what is now achievable was once only imagined. At this critical junction in defining the role and responsibility of emerging technologies, now is the time to imagine a future in which we align our work to service people and planet, both on an individual and a business level.
Cormac Ó Conaire is the chief design officer at Design Partners.