Human Work in the Robotic Future

Source: Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug 2016

By studying lots of examples, identifying relevant patterns, and applying them to new examples, computers have been able to achieve human and super­human levels of performance in a range of tasks

… jobs that involve matching patterns, in particular, from customer service to medical diagnosis, will increasingly be performed by machines.

… in its 2016 report to the president, the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimated that 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour could be automated.

Such a radical reshaping of work will call for new policies to protect the vulnerable while reaping the gains of the new age.  Two basic principles should guide decisions: allow flexibility and experimentation instead of imposing constraints, and directly encourage work instead of planning for its obsolescence.


In times of rapid change, when the world is even less predictable than usual, people and organizations need to be given greater freedom to experiment and innovate.


The second principle, that policy should directly encourage labor, has a straightforward justification: work’s value both for individ­uals and for communities goes well beyond its financial role. As Voltaire put it, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”

In times of disruption, it is impossible to predict exactly how the work force will be affected. The best strategy is not to try to slow the technology but to strive for flexibility, so that people, organizations, and institutions can learn and grow their way into a healthy future. Furthermore, given the importance of work beyond the income it generates, policy should encourage work rather than assuming we live in a world without the need for it.


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