Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

How will today’s technology change our concept of “work”?


View of New York City at night from the 30th Floor of the Millennium UN Plaza. Do all those lights represent labor? Photo by Luigi Crespo. Click on image for license and information.

Change is hard. We meet it with some trepidation and skepticism. This is certainly true when it comes to technology. Each wave of technological advancement has changed the economy; and in each age where it has done so, the there has been a ripple effect. For example, did you know that one of the reasons newsboys were so prolific in New York City in the 19th-century was due to a decline in artisan trades? The Industrial Revolution's factories and sweatshops reduced opportunities for apprenticeships as workshops and crafting disciplines disappeared or were absorbed by progress. In the history of technologically modern nations, we have gone from defining work in terms of agriculture, manufacturing, and management. Each labor shift has replaced its predecessors with the help of increasingly mechanized practices.

We're in the midst of the next technological shift which places robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) at the heart of many industries and daily experiences. While we can't predict the future, it does seem highly likely that these types of technologies will continue to expand. Is it so difficult to imagine a time when surveillance drones are responsible for our safety? Or when robots are responsible for stocking shelves and bagging our groceries? We have a prototype for self-driving cars, and already have automated customer service and self-checkout options. We use technology to communicate with each other—even when we're sitting next to each other. So is it so difficult to imagine a world where labor is increasingly delegated to networked, automated AI and robotic devices? Can this happen by 2025?

This is the question that Pew Research Center recently put to 1,896 technology builders and analysts who opted-in to a survey that produced the report AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs. Roughly half of these experts (48%) believe that with time robotic and AI applications will displace the majority of workers with dystopic consequences: widening income gaps and increasing numbers of unemployable people will lead to widespread social disorder. The other half (52%) maintains that while robots and digital agents will assume a more prominent place in the workforce, new jobs and industries will emerge that will help maintain employment opportunities.

There latter group has a reason to be hopeful. In 2013, labor pool estimates included the following jobs that did not exist in 1999:

  • 165,100 Americans worked as computer network support specialists,

  • 141,270 Americans worked as computer network architects,

  • 78,020 Americans worked as security analysts,

  • 112,820 Americans worked as web developers,

  • and 120,340 Americans worked as "logisticians."

The increasing specialization within networking reveals the emerging complexities of network and communication systems. For all the power of computing networks, they still—at this time—require human engineers. The need for these roles has grown out of our interaction with technology, and it is this sort of response that may drive subsequent employment opportunities. Logisticians are another such example: in a business environment that relies on global distribution networks, they're responsible for coordinating the process from manufacturing to delivery. No small feat when you have to get something from Chennai to New York City by a promised deadline, and only possible in an environment where the distribution needs to have the widest possible reach at the lowest possible cost.

But it’s not surprising the respondents are fairly evenly split. Their arguments are the objections that have graced every major economic shift. "What about the people?," we cry—and that's a question not to be taken lightly when as we stand at a crossroads in our history. For those who believe that we're facing economic displacement as technology becomes more widespread and integrated with everyday experiences, the following themes emerged in their discussion:

  • Longevity. This has been and will be an ongoing process. Advances in AI and automation have slowly been eroding opportunities in the workforce, and will continue to advance in small ways that will be largely overlooked. For example, ATMs have replaced tellers, and self-checkouts are replacing cashiers. These advancements allow businesses to conduct transactions around the clock at minimal costs.

  • Rapidity. We've were able to adjust to changes wrought by the spinning jenny, the cotton gin, blast furnaces, and the steam engine because we had the time to do so. The changes we're facing today are happening at a pace that we're not going to be able to match. Predictive coding algorithms are being put to use in law firms to review documents; mundane tasks are likely most at risk for automation.

  • Inequality. The divide between skilled and non-skilled workers will grow, and it's likely that older adults will be most impacted by this shift. One prediction for this scenario is that required skills for the resulting areas of management will be available only to a few people, resulting in a few highly paid individuals and number of de-skilled positions for the masses. Another scenario is that the people who have the means to own the technology to do the work will stand in opposition to the people who have the means to buy the resulting output of that work, and the latter will see their numbers diminished greatly over time.

Among this group, there is little that won't be touched by automation and robotics: sports, music, craft brewing, and the fine arts may be all that will be exempt. And this vision leads us to a commoditization of personal interaction. Having one-to-one contact with someone may be a service offered for a price, and only in a specific instances.

If this picture seems bleak, don't despair just yet: remember, 52% of respondents believed that not too much would change. We've been down this path before, according to this group, and we are the ones who drive innovation and maintain technological advancement. So there will always be room for an innovative workforce. The themes that emerged from these responses included:

  • Change. We're going to have to come to terms with this. Web development as an industry did not exist as we know it today ten years ago. People have learned the skills needed to perform these services. And with the rise of initiatives like Code Academy, there's a push to make these skills more widely available to people who are interested.

  • Uniqueness. AI only takes us so far. Empathy and critical thinking fall to us, and there will be areas where we won't be able to outsource to robotic agents. This may be most apparent in creative endeavors and in spaces where compassion is important, as in the caregiving fields.

  • Regulation. As fast as technology may advance, we're going to hold it back. That resistance to change will help slow the advancement of technology so that it doesn't take too large of a toll on employment opportunities. For example, we still have truck drivers and commercial pilots but the technology exists for us to automate these jobs. It's going to take longer than 10 years to perfect these technologies to a point where people forget the skills that they are replacing. We will be our own limiters.

Both groups agree that work will change. The jobs we hold now will not be the jobs we hold tomorrow. And with that will come a shift—as it has come before—of what "work" is. This is already starting to happen. For example, one of the predictions holds that we'll experience more leisure time. This is already possible thanks to technologies that allow us to conduct business remotely, however for it to be successful, we're the ones who have to be ready to let go. Employers who never thought telecommuting would have a place in their workforce are now embracing it because it may save them in overhead in the long term. But the truth is that they can no longer hold to that old standard of what a worker is and does. Today's workforce often negotiates some degree of flexibility, and all but the lowest-paying jobs tend to reap those benefits.

We're still holding onto the industrial concept of a "job": We go somewhere and perform a task in exchange for funds. We're engaged in the commoditization of time and labor. Make no mistake, we're likely still going to need to buy essentials, but we may be getting those funds from different places. Work may not mean a 40-hour week. Work may not mean assembly line production. And work may not mean up at the crack of dawn to attend to the livestock. The work tied to these types of trades is already changing, but we don't have to be run over by the promise of technology. Could the spread of AI and robotics invites the return of artisanal crafts and barter-based trade? No where is this clearer than in the DIY movement, which thrives on collaboration and leverages open-source technology to power small production endeavors.

We might not be ready to rethink the concept of work, but it's happening around us.

What are your thoughts on the future of work? Are you experiencing change in your industry due to the adoption of technology? Let's talk about it.


You might also like:

Communicating Meaning Online: A Digital Expression of Theory of Mind

Are we ashamed of lunch?

A robot in every home?

How do we wait?

Creeping Connectivity: Work and Life in a Hyper-connected World

Why are we sleeping with our phones?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article