AI and the Future of Work

I’m only part way through Yuval Noah Harari’s Book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, but it has been fantastic so far just like his other books Sapiens and Homo Deus. In his latest book, he dives into the near future and discusses challenges we’re facing right now like the future of work alongside AI, robots, and machine learning.

One of the most interesting threads in the book thus far has been around potential shifts in the job market and the emergence of what Harari refers to as a “useless class” (term feels a bit harsh).

When machines replaced jobs in past market transitions, humans were able to adapt and adjust because we were largely competing for physical, low skill jobs. Machines, for example, would replace assembly lines, but there were always other opportunities that were fairly easy to learn and transition into. While machines could compete in the physical arena, humans maintained a cognitive advantage.

Harari contrasts these previous transitions against the impending shift in the job market. This shift is different for two main reasons. First, machines are increasingly able to compete in the cognitive arena, not just the physical one. Second, instead of the shift being from low skill job to low skill job, it will be from high skill to high skill. The challenge might not be in creating new jobs for humans to fill but instead in training humans to fill them.

Out of this transition might emerge a “useless class” to borrow a term from the book. Humans that have been displaced by machines with a seemingly insurmountable hurdle to overcome before moving into a new, valued role in society. We might find ourselves facing two problems – high unemployment combined with a shortage of skilled labor.

Interesting thoughts to consider.

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