AI Won’t Help Us Work Less

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Photo by Jan Kaluza on Unsplash

At a China Summit in the fall of 2019, Jack Ma and Elon Musk discussed their contradicting views on the future of artificial intelligence (AI). It was interesting discussion and I recommend watching it. In the talk, Musk lays out his fears that AI will quickly accelerate to push humans out of the way, a real-life Terminator. While Ma believes that AI will improve the human way of life and cause a quantum leap in human productivity to the point where we can all cut the number of hours we work while maintaining our lifestyles. Putting aside Musk’s concerns of a computer takeover, I’d like to cast some doubt on Ma’s hopeful outlook on the benefits of AI and why simply maintaining our lifestyles won’t be enough.

Where the 40-Hour Work Week Comes From

The 40 hour work week was born from an idea of a Ford, Edsel. The son of Henry Ford, Edsel was known for being more compassionate than his inventive father. Before 1922, when Edsel instituted the 40-hour work and it spread to companies around the world, it was common practice for employees to work six ten-hour days. Although, Edsel Ford wasn’t motivated by purely altruistic ideals, he grasped what we are still trying to figure out today — there is a balance between hours worked and productivity. It’s been nearly 100 years since Ford implemented the 40-hour work week and we’ve done little research to determine if it’s the most efficient number for companies or their employees.

To truly work less we need to change the way humans think about work, not the way machines function. For instance, Microsoft worked on an experiment in Japan where employees were asked to complete the same amount of work in 4 days as other employees did in 5 days. The results showed that the productivity among the employees who worked 4 days was higher than their counterparts.

Automation Made Promises Similar to AI

I don’t believe in the promise of AI because we’ve heard it before. Years ago, the invention of automation was predicted to make life easier for everyone, it promised to drastically increase human productivity to the point where a person could work less yet produce more. Just like AI, automation promised to make the 40-hour work week a thing of the past.

Jumping ahead to the present day, Americans work more hours on average today than we did 50 years ago despite the rise of automation (and computers) that have increased our capabilities. We see the benefits of human innovation in the increased GDP of the United States, the higher average salaries, and the plethora of high-end products that are available to Americans. The average standard of living, for the majority of us, has significantly improved. The technology and innovation in cars, TVs, speakers, and phones increases at an incredible pace.

If we had been content with driving cars that have crank windows, TVs the size of refrigerators, or phones that flip we would have the ability to work less and maintain our standard of living, but the standard we all want to achieve keeps getting harder to attain. One of the things that makes humans special is that we are rarely satisfied and yearn for more — we marvel briefly with our accomplishment and then on to the next big thing.

Could AI be different than automation and truly take over work in a way that machines without the ability to think independently could not? I do not believe so. The problem isn’t that we are missing some key innovation that keeps Americans from working less, it’s that working five out of every seven days is what our society has adopted — even if it’s not the most productive for the employer or employee.

Americans don’t really want a 30 hour work week

Some societies want a shorter work week, and it’s part of their culture. Americans might say they want a job where they can work less, but only a select few Americans actually do. In countries like the United States, where working hard is a status symbol, we believe work provides us with purpose. Americans like their vacations, honestly probably don’t take enough of them, but most of us feel excited about getting back to work after a break. Furthermore, humans like to be challenged, to stay busy, and the social circles that a job creates. It’s not enough to have a job that allows us to earn an income, we prefer jobs that tests us and forces us to improve. Even once AI comes along people won’t be willing to give up their jobs very quickly.

Globalization

Arguments made by those on both sides of the political spectrum blame globalization as the reason for the decline in manufacturing jobs, it’s not all wrong. Developing countries have found ways to produce goods cheaper than in America. However, it’s not all bad, the American economy has adjusted and the percent of workers in the service industry has risen dramatically. At one time nearly half of U.S. GDP was represented by manufacturing, today it’s shrunk to 10 percent. Despite the huge shift in focus, the U.S. economy has kept growing and workers have adjusted to fill the demand. The same thing will likely happen with AI. It’s hard to predict what the U.S. economy will look like in the next few decades, but human workers will likely adjust to fill in the gap.

A larger share of the profits go to the top

The gap between what an average worker makes and what the people at the top make is larger than its even been. I believe this is because the perceived value of a single worker is very low, thanks in part to automation. However, those people that we perceive as irreplaceable have increased in value. AI may separate these two groups even more as those who control the development and implementation of AI will greatly prosper and average workers will see less gain.

There have been worker uprisings throughout time, often taking different forms. Religion was one of the earliest advocates for workers’ rights, demanding rights and days off. Next, the mantle of worker protection went to unions in the days of assembly lines and automation, demanding benefits and fair treatment. Unions have been waning as of late and there needs to be a new revolution that protects workers, what that will be is nearly impossible to predict.

What Can We Do Today About AI?

Today is the best day to be alive, and tomorrow promises to be better. The promises of the future will not come without struggle but pushing forward with new inventions and improvements are worthwhile. Even Elon Musk, prophetically warning against the coming AI revolution, is investing in the technology — knowing its inevitability.

For everyone who is still scared about AI, here is my analogy… 200 years ago, the thought of widespread electricity was beyond imagination, today we rarely acknowledge the presence of this marvel. In fact, we get little joy from electricity and instead get frustrated when you flip a switch and it doesn’t work. Humans worry, its a survival tactic. Many promise that AI will revolutionize the world, and it may, but humans will adapt and keep struggling along.

Further Reading:

I have written several related Medium articles on taxes and investing:

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. — Albert Einstein

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