VICE: The Future of Work

This past weekend Vice released the latest segment, The Future of Work, at an ironic and opportune moment as if Vice had read our class syllabus.  Predictably so, the segment opens by discussing similar topics to that of our class conversations; how AI will disrupt menial tasks and therefore replace lower wage jobs.  Highlighting firms like Amazon, well specifically Amazon as its first subject, the Vice News correspondent Krishna Andavolu brings the audience to Amazon’s state-of-the-art fulfilment center in Trenton, NJ.  A peak inside the million square foot facility shows Roomba-like robots transporting vertical shelving units around the facility like an orchestrated jigsaw symphony.  An executive from Amazon excitedly discusses the collaboration between “Amazon Associates” and the robots.  He highlights how harmonious the interaction, and how many additional jobs the facility and Amazon have created.  All good, right?

But, when Krishna asks the following question, which he also later asks one of the Amazon Associates, the same excitement turns to a nervous cackle, “do the people work for the robots or do the robots work for the people?” 

What is frequently overlooked or underappreciated in the conversation around AI disruption is the psychological and emotional impact that the ‘Automated Future’ is having on the individual employee.  

Workers are measured by just that, their work.  The production capability of one worker verses another, and the increase in production yielded by machines verses the human worker.  In America, one’s job is often a fundamental pillar of his or her identity. What’s the first question you ask someone that you meet at a bar or when you sit down at the table with a new date? And the response triggers our own mental algorithms that size up whether this person is suitable friend, companion, or collaborator.  Is this person worth my time?  We wear company-branded Patagonia vests, boast our LinkedIn pages, and tag our colleagues in the annual office holiday party Instagram post.  But, with the evolution of AI that fundamental psychological construct is under attack.

A Series T-800 Robot in Terminator Genisys.

That said, on the upside was an example later in the segment that concluded with a lawyer by the name of Tengie who had just lost to a machine in a competition to complete a task that he does daily.  Upon losing, though, he states “I wasn’t disappointed when the iPhone came out, cause now I can go on to do more stuff. This excites me.”  One of the optimists, Tengie feels confident that while technology will upend many of the current jobs in the American workforce, it will inevitably have beneficiaries.

This later example I also found particularly interesting given the application of AI/Machine Learning to the Legal industry.  I typically think about AI being applied to industries that are heavily reliant on mathematics and coded algorithms; Finance, Robotics in manufacturing, autonomous transportation, predictive analytics related to health and risk, etc.  I never thought about it applied to the written word. But, the LawGeex (https://www.lawgeex.com/aboutus/) machine learning algorithm takes what you would recognize as spellcheck or grammar check, and amplifies the analysis of written word to discern meaning and intent.  And thus, it can review legal contractual language at a fraction of the speed of a human lawyer with a higher level of accuracy, replacing “22% of a lawyer’s job and 30% of a paralegal’s job.” Wow.

But, back to the moral of the story. What do we do, do we have enough time, and what happens if we don’t get there?  Is the idea of “reskilling”, i.e. retraining, our workforce feasible in a timeframe that keeps up or exceeds the constantly moving goal post driven by AI?  And to those who inevitably get innovated out of a job, is there a support network not just from a skills standpoint, but from a psychological standpoint as well?  These are the questions that some in the private and public sectors are grappling with, and others have yet to even consider.

Some believe that an entire shift in the system is necessary.  What do you think?

9 comments

  1. This was a really interesting post! In my last job, we were constantly looking for ways to automate certain processes, like transferring money or adjusting what someone was invested in, so that we could devote more to actually servicing our clients, and answering their questions about the economy and the market. As someone who would regularly work 10-12 hour days, any time saving tools were and are still greatly appreciated.

    That being said, I think employers need to find a way to make sure that their workforce is constantly being retrained – as more things are being automated, find a way to reallocate their time, and institute constant training so that employees are comfortable with the new technology, and don’t feel like they are being phased out.

    It’s definitely a challenge for most companies, but I think that there are ways to do so successfully, and to ensure that our increasing reliance on technology doesn’t mean that older employees are forced out of the workforce.

  2. The point you made about the immediate associations we make when we discuss our jobs when meeting new people was very interesting! I never thought about how this may change with the penetration of AI in the workplace. I think one of the articles we read last week on the future of work mentioned the impact that having valuable work has on our mental state. It is very interesting that our society places such a significant value on our work rather than our family or our hobbies. I wonder if AI will shift this value or only enhance it.

  3. Wow. This is a relevant point to think about moving forward as future companies turn to AI Bots and different digital platforms to reinvent their work structure. I believe this education and work transformation has to begin being taught in educational institutions, as early as high school and most certainly in college. Furthermore, the learning curve will be different depending on what industry sector one is in. If one is in fashion vs. technology, then it will take more time to teach and integrate this new AI revolution.

  4. Really interesting perspective on this topic – while the economic implications of a more automated workforce receive a lot of air time, it seems as though the social and psychological consequences of this phenomenon have not yet made it into mainstream conversation and debate. You make a great point that so much of our identity and dignity is wrapped up in our daily work- I agree that, as a society, we will need to shift our conception of personal worth if we are going to successfully adapt to tech-driven labor. What I think is particularly worrying is that we don’t seem to have any particular plan or safety net for people who can’t be re-skilled, at least not in the traditional sense – take, for example, people whose intellectual or physical disabilities limit their job opportunities to the types of jobs most prone to automation replacement (working as cashiers or in food service, for example). If we do not figure out a way to provide adaptive re-skilling to individuals with these unique needs, we will lose this segment of the workforce entirely and, even more importantly, such individuals will lose what is often one of their main connections to social life, positive self-perception, and a sense of purpose.

  5. I’ve been reading a lot recently about the idea of a universal basic income, paid for by a tax on automation and robotics. While this may slow down the progress of automated solutions replacing human workers, it definitely won’t completely impede it. The reason that this idea is so interesting to me is that it bridges the gap for people who are unable to be ‘reskilled’ or ‘upskilled’. When autonomous vehicles become commercialized, hundreds of millions of people in the US will be out of a job in an incredibly short time frame. I think that a safety net like universal basic income could potentially help alleviate some of the struggles that these people will feel as they go through the reskilling process, something that may take years to get through!

  6. Great post! Bringing up the idea of introducing yourself with your job is such an American idea. Our identity is very closely tied to our career. This may not be the best idea. We must be agile with our work, but also aware that our lives extend just beyond what we do from 9-5.

  7. So much of 2025+ is going to be deciding public policy on the automation of many laborious jobs. One solution is to tax companies automating their workforce, use this money for employee retraining. There also becomes an issue with shareholders demanding higher levels of profit leading to more automation. Hard to sell goods to people with no income

  8. This is a topic that I think is really important and something that needs to be addressed as AI and machine learning are increasingly being used to automate tasks that were once done by low-wage workers. After our class discussions I do think that the most benefit will come out of humans and AI/robots working together, similar to the Amazon study. I feel like there’s no doubt that some adjustments will have to be made to accommodate the increasingly automated workplace, and that will have to come by some type of legislative intervention which is notoriously slow. I do think that the notion of whether or not the robots are working for individuals or the other way around is an interesting one. I agree that your occupation is in large part tied to identity because it takes up such a large part of our day-to-day. It will be interesting to see if we as a population can adjust to the changing landscape of daily work life with AI involved, as that’s the clear direction things are going. Great job on the post, I think this is something that requires some real consideration!

  9. Great post! So interesting how often we make judgements based on what someone does for a living when there is so much more information that makes a person who they are, and that is a change in thinking that needs to happen, especially in the world that is coming. This made me think of the panel that we had in class and the fact that their answers to the question “what makes a good leader” were not technical skills at all, and I think the same applies for being a worker. Most technical skills can be taught (and are becoming less important as AI can often do it better), but skills like willingness to learn and adapt, as well as creativity, are skills that are increasingly important in todays age.

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