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.
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?