Book Review: Author Daniel Susskind offers a peek into future of work, AI and human society

The writer points out that those who take solace in the assumption that only routine tasks can be automated should realise that many non-routine tasks are also being taken over by AI, such as driving a car.

May 16, 2020 / 10:23 AM IST

A World Without Work

by Daniel Susskind

At the beginning of this remarkable book, its author Daniel Susskind quotes Nobel laureate economist Wassily Leontief: “What technological progress had done to horses, he said, it would eventually do to human beings as well: drive us out of work. What cars and tractors were to them, he thought, computers and robots would be to us.”

The thrust of Susskind’s book is that there won’t be “enough work for everyone to do in the 21st century”. This is the ‘thesis statement’ of the book; the book develops the statement with enough and engaging details, goes satisfyingly deeply into reasons supporting the statement, and explains the likely consequences of mass joblessness on human societies, among other points. Along the way, it jolts cosy assumptions about automation that are harboured not only by us laypersons but apparently also by qualified economists. That is what makes the book undoubtedly worrying but also absolutely valuable.

I was hooked by the book and it was not just because of the importance of the subject, but because of Susskind’s writing style. Susskind has the gift of writing concisely and in a conversational tone. His background as an academic is apparent through his enthusiastic impulse to make a technical subject accessible to us lay readers, thus improving our ability to deal with new information and circumstances. He has the ability to engage and even entertain us with his obvious grasp of his subject.

Historical roots of AI

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At the beginning of the book, the writer launches into an utterly fascinating survey of the field of artificial intelligence (AI), beginning with its historical roots and bringing us into the present day state of the field. Susskind briefly also takes us inside the minds of AI theorists and innovators and their aspirations and conceptions of the ideal AI. It may be tempting to skip this part of the book, but it bears careful reading because it is engrossing and because it contains concepts that light up later chapters. For instance, Susskind tells us the difference between Artificial General Intelligence (“wide-ranging capabilities”) and Artificial Narrow Intelligence (“which can only handle very particular assignments”). Both will have the ability to replace human workers, Susskind writes – either a single AGI will do it, or a number of ANIs will do it, working separately at each task that makes up any given job.

Susskind is particularly good at retaining nuance in the argument that ‘technology takes away jobs’. He acquaints us with existing theories about this subject, including the one saying that technology takes away ‘routine’ aspects of some jobs; the theory saying that technology may put some or many workers out of work, but that technology will create demand for human labour in other sectors of the economy; the theory saying that certain jobs involving human abilities to think and feel cannot be automated, and other theories. Susskind pokes holes in each of these theories, using such compelling arguments that I am left alarmed by Susskind’s visions of the future as well as dazzled by his arguments. Susskind points out that those who take solace in the assumption that only routine tasks can be automated should realise that many non-routine tasks are also being taken over by AI, such as driving a car. That is because, he writes, “[m]achines can now learn how to perform tasks themselves, deriving their own rules from the bottom up”. Thus, they have no need to replicate the steps that a human being would take in order to solve a particular problem. For those who think that machines cannot do some jobs because they do not think or feel, Susskind memorably writes, “... machines might still be able to carry out tasks that require empathy, judgement or creativity when done by a human being – by doing them in some entirely other fashion”. Thus, Susskind says, [w]e do not need to solve the mysteries of how the brain and mind operate to build machines that can outperform human beings”.

Machines are “increasing pressure” on the “three main capabilities” which humans use in their work: manual, cognitive and affective capabilities. Manual labour is increasingly the work of machines, whether in agriculture, supply chains at Amazon, or industry. One estimate puts the number of industrial robots at 30 lakh around the world. As for cognitive capabilities, those that require the use of thought and reasoning, here, too, machines are advancing rapidly. There are software programs that can draft legal agreements in minutes. Medical programs can diagnose many diseases at least as well and in many cases better than the best doctors. Human resources departments are using software to analyse CVs. Even journalism (which I had thought unassailable) has software-created news reports. Associated Press and Bloomberg are using there. Software has been used to compose music that has been attributed to Bach, the genius composer. Machines are also doing tasks that require affective capabilities – the abilities to feel emotions. There’s even a name for this branch of computer science, ‘affective computing’. Machines can decipher the look on a person’s face and identify his or her emotion, and whether someone is lying (with 90 percent accuracy).

Rather alarming for India is Susskind’s statement that “[t]he sorts of tasks that the OECD considers to be easiest to automate are disproportionately found in poorer countries”. This will happen when a machine will be able to perform a job cheaper than a human can. While it is true that technological advances create and destroy jobs, it is equally true that those who lose their jobs might not be well-placed to take up the new jobs on offer: they may lack the necessary skills, they may look down on such jobs as are still available, or may not be in required locations, says Susskind. Moreover, machines may take away more jobs than they create. Nor is there any certainty that as machines help economies grow larger, they will create more jobs for humans. Susskind says, “[The USA’s manufacturing sector] produces 70 percent more output than it did back in 1986, but requires 30 percent fewer people to produce it”. Susskind wisely points out that most optimistic economists, who say that there will always be enough work for people to do, are labouring under the ‘superiority assumption’ – that humans will be better suited to the new kinds of jobs created when machines replace them.

Effects of mass joblessness on human societies

Susskind mentions the main effects of mass joblessness on human societies – rising inequality, as some people may be left with capital, which yields them revenues, and others who have little or no capital, whether it is ‘traditional’ capital or human capital that will then be in demand. Susskind writes, “President John F. Kennedy famously quipped that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, by which he meant that economic growth would benefit everyone in society. In a strong enough tide, those who find themselves without a boat – that is, those without any capital at all that is valued by the market – will simply drown.” In a startling passage, Susskind says that the economic systems of the world are not presently capable of handling the sort of extreme inequality that machines will create.

The writer does not, however, goad us into helplessness or depression. He devotes roughly a third of the book to exploring solutions to income inequality. He recommends a total change in school and college curricula, in the way we impart education, and when education is availed. Education must impart skills that machines have not yet picked up, Susskind says. Here lies nuance, of course: it is impossible to predict which skills will continue to be immune to encroachment by machines. Moreover, there are “limits on how effective education can be in making humans more productive”, while there seems to be “no comparable limit” to the productivity of machines in the future.

Susskind proposes another solution to income inequality: the state must step in to distribute resources among the needy. He discusses, in satisfying depth, the popular concept of Universal Basic Income, focussing on its benefits as also the complications in implementing it. UBI can be fuelled by taxing those with more means, of course, and giving money to everyone; Susskind is not in favour of unconditional UBI, and says governments will have to set conditions for people to fulfill to be eligible for getting UBI. Susskind calls this Conditional Basic Income (CBI). This seems to be an important point, because Susskind also points out that UBI can cause resentment among taxpayers, who may not want to support people or communities that they dislike. But they may support people whom, they realize, are contributing to society in a positive way by meeting the eligibility criteria for CBI.

Susskind also looks favourably upon state investment in the private sector on behalf of those citizens who cannot themselves afford to do so. He points out the example of Norway, which has a $1 trillion fund in which each of its citizens has a stake. And the American state of Alaska, which has a $60 billion fund, which is used to pay each adult and child Alaskan about $1,400 a year.

Leisure policies

Finally, Susskind tackles the problem of finding meaning and fulfillment in a world without work. He quotes various sources to establish the fact that there is nothing inherently meaningful about work; that humans can gain meaning from other sources as well. Leisure, Susskind argues, will free people to pursue what they find to be truly worthwhile. Rather provocatively, Susskind calls work the new opium of the people. “Like a drug, it provides some people with a pleasurable burst of purpose. But, at the same time, it intoxicates and disorientates, distracting us from looking for meaning elsewhere.” Susskind is not suggesting that people be left to their own devices; he suggests that governments implement ‘leisure policies’ that “inform and shape the way that people use their spare time”. This spare time will be used in the pursuit of arts and in cultural activities, caring for others, politics, or simply unpaid work that people absolutely want to do. Thus ends this utterly engrossing book.

A World Without Work is highly recommended for every worker and thinker interested in the future of work, a future that Susskind says may be mere decades away. And because much of what Susskind says in the book may apply to several white- and blue-collar sectors of India’s economy, I recommend the book enthusiastically to Indian government officials and thinkers.

Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.
Suhit Kelkar
first published: May 16, 2020 10:18 am

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