Text by Erin Stewart, Australia
A fifteen-hour work week will be the norm by 2030, according to the predictions British economist John Maynard Keynes made in 1930. He argued that technological change would lead to such abundance that people would no longer need work to subsist.
Of course, the fifteen-hour work week hasn’t come to fruition. While work hours tended to decrease globally over the twentieth century, in the last decade the number of hours worked across the EU haven’t seemed to have changed much. The plateau has been despite significant technological innovations that Keynes could never have anticipated: the widespread use of the internet.
Dr Alexandra Beauregard, an Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at Middlesex University in London says that for many workers, internet-enabled devices have actually correlated with an extension of working hours, particularly for professionals.
Constant connectivity, she says, has changed employers’ expectations of workers. “You send an email on Saturday and you’re surprised if on Sunday night no one has answered it yet because you know they can get the email.”
We’re now seeing a new generation of technologies that may – as the internet did, and electricity before that, and industrial-scale machination before that – revolutionise work. A panel event, “Science or fiction: Will robots rise to power?” at EYE, discussed the implications of developments in artificial intelligence and addressed the fact that human working history has bounded with unforeseen consequences of new technology.
“We will be augmented by the capabilities of robots,” says panellist Gianfranco Visentin, who is the Head of Automation and Robotics Section at the European Space Agency. The other panellists, Cristina Andersson, an entrepreneur, and Florian Kondert, the Digital Director of Zukunftinstitut GmbH, agreed that robots are going to change our work and lives.
The problem is, we don’t know how yet. The panel turned its gaze to alarmists who turn to science-fiction like Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey as evidence of a looming threat of robot takeover. But at the same time, there are people who see a robotic future enthusiastically, pointing to the role robots are already starting to play in eliminating monotonous tasks like warehouse work, long haul driving, agricultural tasks and even sport reporting.
For the optimists, the increased productivity robots can offer the workplace is itself exciting. As, Andersson points out, robots are very good at some jobs, and don’t go on strike or require coffee breaks.
But even if you see robotics as promising rather than threatening, there are lingering questions around what exactly humans will do when all this work is being tasked to robots. And given our history of not fully comprehending the implications of new technology on work – we still don’t have that fifteen-hour work week, nor has the internet made our work and lives balance better – it would be unwise to speculate.
Kondert describes why our speculation is doomed to fail, “we try to predict things that’ll happen in the future with the mindset of today.”
The panellists were nonetheless reassuring about the future of work for humans. Andersson says that “robots create wealth, you create value.” As such, humans will retain the ability to find meaning from work, and to decide what activities need pursuit.
Likewise, “we will need more skills that are different from today,” says Kondert. People will need to know more about technology to better understand their new wired colleagues, and they’ll also need to be creative. “Creativity is the advantage point for humans,” says Visentin.
Neither animals nor robots are capable of it and will always be part of the value we bring to our work. For those with a more fearful view of technology, each of the panellists advocate for regulation around what should be possible. Robots need to be regulated ethically, and we need to think about the circumstances in which it would be preferable to use them in the workforce, keeping in mind both the looming opportunities and threats. Perhaps, for instance, more investment can be made in retraining workers who are displaced by robots, as well as a greater integration of technology within the education system.
“We as a society decide what makes sense,” says Kondert. Indeed, some countries, and the EU itself, have put together strategic plans for the role of robots in society. We may not be able to imagine what’s in store for our work and lives in the future, but it’s up to us to shape it along the way. As Andersson says, “We need to think about what kind of world we want and I think that robots can help us create it.”