18.4 Work and Automation

The impact of automation, in general, and AI, in particular, on the nature of work and employment has been widely studied by economists and sociologists; however, there is no consensus yet on the impact of automation or AI. Some claim that AI, including robotics, will lead to large-scale unemployment; others claim that many new job categories will develop based on AI-enabled developments. A better way to look at the phenomenon is to understand that any particular job requires a suite of skills. Some of those skills may indeed be rendered redundant. Other skills may become more necessary and may also require upgrading. As discussed above, disintermediation eliminates many job categories but also requires “upskilling” other job categories. These issues are explored by Brynjolfsson and McAfee [2014], Agrawal et al. [2019], and Ford [2021]. One theme, developed by Agrawal et al. [2022], is that business decisions require prediction and judgment. Machine learning is now enabling automated prediction so human judgment and decision analysis skills become relatively more valuable. Danaher [2021] considers the ethics of automation and the future of work.

AI and related technologies are creating many new job categories; however, the new post-industrial high-tech corporations typically employ many fewer people than corporations based in the older industrial economy, with similar market size. AI is now permeating the entire economy, with AI-related jobs being created in the older industrial corporations, such as the auto industry and other manufacturing sectors as well as in the health, legal, education, entertainment, and financial sectors. One aspect of the role of AI in the video game industry is described in Section 6.6. Perhaps fewer people will be required to produce society’s goods and services. Moreover, AI could generate so many significant new wealth opportunities that a universal basic income (UBI) guaranteed to everyone, without qualification, is possible, and necessary, to redistribute some of that wealth equitably [Ford, 2021]. The argument for UBI is that AI will reduce the need for much manual and mental labour, so the human rights to housing and sustenance should not be tied entirely to employment income. This could allow more creative leisure time and informal caregiving.

It is already the case that the employment picture is changing significantly, disrupted by AI. Many workers now have a portfolio of employment gigs, working on short-term ad hoc contracts. The so-called gig economy allows AI-enabled scheduling and organizing of the resources needed for just-in-time ordering and delivery of consumer goods and services, including ride-hailing and food delivery. This has produced radical changes in the nature of retail shopping and employment. A permanent full-time job with a single employer for life is no longer the standard model. The gig economy has the benefit of flexibility, for both the employee and the employer. On the downside, workers are losing the advantages and protections of organizing in unions, including security of employment, bargaining for wages and salaries, and benefits such as vacations, paid sick leave, pensions and health care coverage (if it is not universal). Enhancements to government legislation, regulation, and enforcement are being proposed to cope with these emerging challenges.