What will the future of work look like?

Freepik/@ macrovector

Original article (in Croatian) was published on 09/08/2022

It was once thought that people would only work a few hours a day in the future. The future of work no longer looks so optimistic.

Are you afraid that your workplace will soon simply disappear? One morning you will get fired, severance pay, a kick in the butt, termination of the contract, and then you will no longer be able to find a job in the profession.

You worked hard at the workplace, you were even respected as a saleswoman in a local store or wholesale, a forklift or trailer truck driver, a polished middle-ranking manager in a prestigious international company, a fact-checking journalist or a primary radiologist doctor, and even a psychiatrist. But one day, your boss, manager, company owner or hospital director will come up to you, shuddering a little with discomfort and casually telling you that you’re no longer needed.

Your workplace will be taken over by technology, robot, and artificial intelligence, and your painstaking education, work experience, years of hard work, and sweat will no longer matter to anyone. Self-service cash registers will replace saleswomen in the supermarket, forklifts in the warehouse will be replaced by self-propelled robots, trucks will drive autonomously without drivers, middle management will be replaced by algorithmic applications as well as fact-checkers, and doctors will be relieved because artificial intelligence makes more reliable diagnoses in seconds and recommends efficient treatment therapy.

All this can be good news because if there is no hard work, we will have more time for ourselves, family and friends. There are also those who propose mandatory work actions in America so that citizens, especially the younger ones, socialize with each other, do something and thus preserve the achievements of democracy.

At such organized activities, maybe once again, at least as a joke, verses like those from Yugoslavian socialism are sung – “A friendship song is played, a song that celebrates work, let the heart sing to us that work will live”.

Although it sounds like pressure that someone is still forcing us to do some work for the common good, maybe one day, when robots replace us, we will rush ourselves and happily grab the shovels. Psychologists claim that without work, people become depressed and sick, feeling useless and rejected. Given that too much work is not healthy either, we have to agree on what would be the daily optimum.

Would you agree to say three hours of light work a day? In fact, some of our ancient ancestors worked that much, and it was dreamed that we, too, would do that much in a few years.

The robots are coming

In the Stone Age in southern Africa, argued anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, three to five hours a day were spent hunting and gathering berries, fruits and vegetables, and the rest of the time was spent in leisure.

Those distant relatives of ours were not interested in producing a surplus because they expected that they would always find enough of everything they needed in nature. Supposedly there were no slaves, no inequality and no private property.

Then agriculture, larger settlements, hierarchy, slave ownership, and private estates developed, and most people worked more and more. All the progress made in the past thousands of years lengthened the working day and led to the fact that in these times, we control the entire planet and with technological aids, we actually work almost always whenever we are awake.

Economist John Keynes optimistically claimed a hundred years ago that from 2030, a golden age of relaxation and enjoyment of a high standard with only a 15-hour work week will begin, because organized production, top technology and advanced harmonious relations in society will make this possible. The chances of realizing Keynes’ utopia seem weak at the moment because those with professional jobs mostly complain about overload, stress and fear that they will be run over by computers, not even dreaming that their working hours will ever decrease and their wages will increase at the same time.

Waitering in a cafe, now a frequent occupation of sturdy Croatian guys and cheerful girls, could be replaced by an American robot that costs only two hundred thousand kunas and cooks and serves 120 coffees per hour.

Do you prefer to sit on the terrace and wait for the waiter to serve you coffee? No problem, robots are already sliding trays between tables in Japan. Are you hungry and would really like a warm meal made from fresh ingredients, say a bowl of healthy salad with lots of vegetables and rice? In London, they are already testing a robot that, as they announce, will prepare a hundred meals per hour from over fifty raw ingredients.

The listed machines will be able to understand more languages ​​than any human waiter on the Adriatic. The owners of cafes, sandwich bars and restaurants on our attractive coast are probably already dreaming about them to avoid looking for labor for the coming season as soon as possible.

Contactless work

If you are now thinking that everything we are talking about here will never happen because you will be the first to refuse to be served by some cold machine, let us note that many of us already use contactless whenever we have the opportunity.

So far, they have gone the farthest in this regard in South Korea, where a non-contact society is being developed in a targeted manner, in which interpersonal transactions are minimized, and the use of computers and robots is encouraged wherever possible. The South Korean government generously funds such removal of face-to-face human interactions because, as it has been shown so far, the economy functions more efficiently and quickly, the bureaucracy is reduced, and the obligations of warmhearted behavior towards customers disappear.

Younger South Koreans generally support contactless trends in every situation, and the whole process has accelerated since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as distancing has become even more acceptable.

For those who feel lonely and emotionally neglected in such a new society, partners who are always available and look attractive on the screen are being developed, giving the impression through text messages that you are really in an emotional relationship.

The most famous anthropomorphic chatbot, Xiaoice, thus becomes a boyfriend or girlfriend. It is always available, responds to messages, and recognizes when it is necessary to tell a joke or express a word of comfort. In this way, the virtual empathetic interlocutor satisfies the emotional needs of the human user and is so good that many people think that a real person is sending them messages, not believing that artificial intelligence can recognize feelings and react to them so efficiently.

Statistics show that young people send the most messages to the described virtual love partners around midnight because that’s when feelings of loneliness are more pronounced.

AI medicine

Suppose a major mental health crisis occurs due to a contactless lifestyle, without face-to-face conversations and human touch. In that case, everyone seeking psychological help will come across another computer aid in the future – a virtual therapist whose task will be to alleviate the consequences of anxiety and depression.

Such chatbot machines are already in advanced development and will replace psychologists and psychiatrists by recognizing agitated emotions in various ways, including facial expressions, and establishing a relationship of understanding with patients.

It remains to be seen whether computers can really distinguish real human emotions and replace what we usually call warm human contact, but given the chronic lack of therapists, it is not excluded that in some time, it will be the synthetic voice of artificial intelligence, after patiently listening to us, who will recommend us to swallow some Normabel.

The fields of medicine are experiencing revolutionary changes because intelligent computers have, in many cases, overtaken doctors in diagnosing, and according to announcements, they will gradually take over four-fifths of what we are used to doing by human doctors.

According to research, artificial intelligence is a third better than humans in diagnosing cancer and recommending therapies, and during triage, when it is necessary to decide on the urgency of medical intervention on a patient, the doctor’s accuracy was 77%, while the computer’s accuracy reached 90%.

In the field of radiology, on the other hand, when errors in diagnosis occur, most often during night shifts and when reading X-ray images of multiple fractures, artificial intelligence comes in handy because it compares a huge amount of data that a human radiologist, no matter how experienced, would not even have time to observe in his entire working experience. There is a chronic shortage of good radiologists in many countries, and it has already been noticed that some medical students decide to avoid specializations in radiology because they believe that they will not be able to match artificial intelligence in the accuracy of reading X-rays and other scans.

Even excellent surgeons do not find it easy when they hear news about the testing of robots that in the future will probably perform complex operations with greater precision and fewer errors without human help. In a recent competition held between a surgeon and an autonomous robot performing procedures typical for laparoscopic operations, the robot won, but for consolation, it should be said that it still hasn’t moved far behind the experienced surgical expert.

Working class under algorithmic control

We could list here many occupations that are threatened by the explosive technological revolution, and that could disappear in the next decade or two. Even in the search for a new job, it will be almost impossible to avoid artificial intelligence because as many as three-quarters of resumes and job applications in America are already read first by computer algorithms, not people.

In doing so, computers reject many qualified applicants because of minor mistakes in job applications. They are sometimes biased, as demonstrated in the case of Amazon, where automated processing of job applicants favored men over women. In such Amazon, computers, instead of human bosses, supervise the workers who pack the shipments and precisely measure every minute that is not spent in the execution of the work. Going to the toilet, exchanging a few sentences with a colleague, going to the wrong floor in the building, and similar activities are automatically recorded as sinful idleness.

And for those who do not have to go to work in a factory or warehouse, robots have a solution. If you are an employee of a good company and lucky enough to be able to work from home on a business laptop, there is a possibility that you are under surveillance that you may not know enough about. Several software programs that companies use to monitor whether their workers are slacking, also known as bossware, can record everything that is typed, detailed mouse movements, and even turn on the camera and microphone without the worker’s knowledge.

Artificial intelligence carefully sorts through all the data collected on the behavior of workers and dares to use algorithms to determine what their psychological profile is, whether there is a possibility that they will reveal a business secret and whether they plan to quit their jobs. Applications for spying on workers are rapidly improving and will replace many bosses from middle management, those who until now were, for example, heads of sales departments, project offices and similar work groups.

Work operations

You have already understood from this that we will all be fired. Well, maybe not all because robots are predicted to take over 40% of today’s jobs.

If we still want to look at the future a little more brightly, it should be noted that robotization will require a lot of workers with some new knowledge, which means that some of us will be able to retrain, perhaps more than once during our working life, and thank the robots for advancing with increasingly generous salary.

According to analysts, between those who adapt well to the new times and others who are less successful, a new deep economic gap will be created that can cause social unrest and sudden growth of populism. In order to reduce such polarizations to a lesser extent, American diplomat David Carden suggests that mandatory work actions should be introduced. Young Americans, says Carden, would benefit from a national program that will encourage them to build apartments for the poor together and maintain public areas and common goods.

The rich and the poor, the left and the right would be side by side, and in some environment far from home, they would witness how other people live in some unknown town or village.

For years, French President Emmanuel Macron has also mentioned the possibility of introducing mandatory multi-week national service in work for the common good, which would also be connected with military training. Although the ideas of such work actions may probably sound tempting to parents whose newly grown children lazily drag themselves around the house in their pajamas, the more discerning reader will immediately notice that such public works do not actually require humans because they can be done by robots anyway.

Stacking brick on brick, installing knauf panels, painting walls, loading, unloading, leveling the surface with heavy machinery and similar operations will also be automated in the coming decades, and there will be the possibility for robots to build a house or multi-story building by themselves as a joke.

How to regulate work in the future?

Should the vast majority of people on Earth, the billions of hired workers who work for pay, do anything during the accelerated robotization or just calmly let the technological revolution travel its course?

At the research institute at the University of California, Berkeley, they propose the urgent adoption of laws that would protect the dignity of workers, regulate the responsibility of corporations and care for the common good in the long term. Technology will change workplaces, and it is necessary, they say, to establish new standards.

At this moment, it may seem superfluous to talk about some workers’ rights or fantasies about shorter working hours when the media is full of articles about the need to import additional labor because there is no one to pick cherries on the farm, install new tiles in the house, serve tourists in the middle of the high season or examine patients who have been on the waiting list for months.

But the majority of workers, argues author and futurist Martin Ford, will inevitably be affected by the transition brought about by artificial intelligence in the coming years and decades, including those who are better educated. Workers, continues Ford, the author of the book “Robot Reign: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything”, will simply be drastically divided into winners and losers.

Let’s face the truth: all jobs that a machine can do instead of a human will sooner or later result in a human being fired. Therefore, workers, unions, governments and international institutions should start thinking about how to tackle this challenge now.