What will work look like when everything is automated?

There are two visions of the future of work:

It’s either the doomsday view where humans are rendered obsolete or the idealistic view where robots do all the bits of work we don’t want to, leaving us to lounge around in luxury.

In both situations, our working days will experience a radical change.

If the robots are ‘coming for our jobs’, what exactly does that leave us doing? Will we still need to work when most of what we do can be automated? And what will that work actually look like?

‘Worry not,’ futurist Melissa Sterry tells Metro.co.uk. ‘An army of bots isn’t going to take your every job, and you, whosoever you are, and whatsoever your specialism, cannot be “replaced” by a computer.’

A reassuring message along the lines of ‘don’t worry, you’re still special’ but in terms of work, not entirely the case.

Many parts of work can and likely will be replaced by automation, from physical labour such as packing boxes at Amazon to data entry to conducting research and writing up the findings.

Eliza Easton, principal policy researcher at Nesta, says ‘there are jobs that are likely to disappear over the next 10 years’, pointing to the replacement of cashiers with self-service checkout machines as an example of just ‘how swift and seismic changes can be’.

If your job is comprised of tasks that can be automated, it makes sense that your work will vanish by 2050. The answer won’t be to pack in work completely, but to focus on aspects of your existing work that require humanity, or to swap to a new role that’s opened up as a result of automation.

There are may jobs such as productivity officer, AI psychologist, and drone manager expected to be commonplace by 2050 but work separate from robots will be crucial, too – all the human things that we aren’t able to automate or don’t want to.

‘Good judgement, being able to speak fluently about ideas and complex problem solving look set to become ever more important,’ Eliza says.

‘Many of them are used in creative jobs that combine these skills with abilities to use new tech but also key to less ‘technology heavy’ jobs involving caring, teaching and communicating.’

Those human-facing jobs will need to become more highly valued as automation takes over.

And this means a day in the life of an employee will be very different:



What a working day might look like in 2050

We asked futurist Richard Worzel to help us imagine what a day in the life of an office worker will be like in 2050.

Here’s his predicted diary:

Ever since I hooked up with my AI, Simone, I get to come into work when it’s most convenient for me. Since my AI reports on both the time I spend working (wherever I work, even at home), and how much I accomplish, my supervisors don’t worry about whether the company is getting its money’s-worth out of me, and I have much more flexibility and freedom. Simone, documents it for their AIs.

When I arrive at my desk, Simone has a summary of the important issues waiting my attention, in priority order, by her estimate.

I look over the list, shift the priorities somewhat, and get started. Everything on the list consists of work Simone has done since I last checked with her, and that needs human intervention, judgment, or insight.

This means that I’m no longer doing drudge-work, but am working on interesting things that are challenging or require innovation. As a result, I now find work fascinating most of the time – except for the parts where humans have caused problems that Simone can’t sort out, when I have to wade in and solve problems, often with intransigent people.

I will often get Simone to multi-task, doing research on a topic, setting up telepresence conferences with people here and outside the company, and doing multi-variant analysis as I look for patterns of behaviour and new trends to exploit.

After about 70 minutes, Simone suggests that I stop and walk around, get some coffee, and chat with some of my co-workers. I’ve been sitting too long, and my productivity is starting to suffer. So I go to the toilet, catch a coffee, and check in on some of my workmates – many of whom are also taking AI-suggested breaks.

Simone also recommends when I should stop for lunch as my Fittest indicates that my blood-sugar is starting to get low. She also suggests that I go for a walk, and suggests a path through the city around St. Paul’s, then down by the river and back. After picking up a sandwich at a new shop she’s recommended (and where she ordered for me, with my concurrence), I walk down to the river, sit and eat my lunch, and chat with my mum.

The afternoon unfolds pretty much as the morning did, with Simone doing the routine stuff, plus deep analytic work that I assign her, and me making decisions, coming up with solutions, consulting clients, suppliers, and co-workers, and solving problems. Simone has to remind me that I’m going to a concert this evening at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, so I finish up what I’m working on, dictate some thoughts and notes for me for the morrow, and give Simone some final instructions for overnight.

Then I ask Simone to switch to private mode – and she accompanies me through the evening and night, acting as a personal AI, and letting neither work nor personal life to lap into each other. My bosses are prevented from knowing anything I don’t wish to disclose about my personal life, and Simone reminds me if I’m ever in danger of revealing something confidential about my work.

All in all, it’s a happy partnership. I get more done, feel better about my work, enjoy it more – and have become substantially more valuable to the firm.

But there’s a number of reasons why experts believe that just because a robot could do the work doesn’t mean they should do it.

‘We are a predominantly social species,’ says Melissa. ‘We have evolved not one but many means of communicating, and continue to do so to this day.

‘We are a particularly expressive species, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and when we don’t have capacity to communicate to others, to build social bonds, and to express ourselves, our wellbeing is compromised.

‘Resource limits aside, we could automate umpteen occupations. But, do we really want to? Do we really want to be served a pint by a robot? To have our hair cut by a machine? To so extrapolate ourselves from our fellow citizens as to become prisoners of our own thoughts? I think not.’

Work won’t look the same as it does right now. If you spend eight hours sat in front of a computer, automation will change that. But it won’t be as drastic as you being kicked out of the office forevermore.

What we’re likely to see is portions of your work being automated, but others remaining dependent on the skills you hold as a human, using automation as a tool to improve your productivity.

Eliza tells us: ‘It seems unlikely that AI will make jobs as we know them obsolete. There are still many professions – engineering, design, care workers – which we can, with some confidence, predict are likely to grow rather than shrink over the next ten years.

‘For the time being, I think we should focus on ‘collective intelligence’, where human and machine intelligence work together, rather than AI on its own.

‘Would you be happy handing over the police service to machines, with no people involved in moderating how they are working? Would you be happy to be cared for in your old age by a robot, exclusively? If the answer is no, then we will still need workers in the future.

This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.

From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.

Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.

Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything  If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: [email protected] or [email protected]

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