Around 200 years ago, a new word was introduced to the English language following a series of riots and machine breakings in England between 1811 and 1813. That word, referring to the rioters, was “Luddite”. And whilst “Luddite” has since become something of an insult, we in our awful cyberpunk future-world of 2017 have a fair bit in common with our belligerent ancestors, thanks to the looming prospect of an economy driven by Artificial Intelligence.
The fact that the workplace is becoming increasingly digitised is self-evident, yet increasingly, questions are being asked as to whether AI might supplant human labour. According to a report by Forrester, AI may replace an estimated 7% of jobs by 2025 in the US. Even more starkly, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari warned that AI would create a class of “useless humans” as skills required to compete in the AI dominated job market would become redundant much faster. The existence of Google cars lends further credence to the idea that AI can perform tasks previously reserved for humans.
So will an AI actually take your job? Only time will tell but I think some historical perspective is helpful, hence the reference to the Luddites. Rather than superstitious technophobes, most Luddites were prestigious, skilled workers. The onset of industrialisation and machinery that could perform their job cheaper and more efficiently threatened not only their livelihoods but their very social status. Additionally one can denote a pattern of increasing mechanisation (digitisation in this case) from the Industrial Revolution onwards at the expense of human labour. After all, a machine needs no wage, nor does it get sick, pregnant or go on strike.
For many theorists, the next question is how to prepare for such a future. Several potential solutions have been offered but, as Harari puts it, the real question of giving people “a reason to get up in the morning” remains unanswered.