In the Age of Automation, We Must Learn to Love What We Fear

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor’s creation is a superhuman being, capable of feats well beyond any earthly creature. But when the doctor looks upon the creature, he sees only ugliness and brutality. Rather than guiding it as a father guides a son, he reacts in fears, and abandons it upon an unsuspecting world.

And so a monster is born. A monster that goes on to kill its creator before it too is destroyed.

200 years later, we find ourselves at the end of a prologue to a new Frankenstein tale. Of course, it’s not hulking reanimated zombies that we face, but digitised life in the form of artificial intelligence.

Already, the fear is spreading, from the fast-food restaurant manager soon to be out of a job, to great minds like Stephen Hawking, who has proclaimed that AI stands to be “either the best, or the worst thing to happen to humanity”.

Isaac Asimov, one of the founding fathers of science fiction, called this fear – take a guess – the Frankenstein Complex. It’s based on the notion that humans will always resist the existence of “mechanical men”, i.e. engineered intelligence. Not because they are scared that the machines will kill them à la The Terminator, but because they are scared of becoming irrelevant.

In their 2010-2014 report, the World Values Survey found that 81.6% of Australians and 79.9% of Americans considered work one of the most important elements in their life. Those who found meaningful work and continued in it post-retirement age were 10% less likely to die for each year of delay than those who did retire.

Work motivates us. It makes us happier and healthier. But what happens when jobs that have existed across the globe for decades, even centuries, simply disappear?

Experts have been quick to comfort, assuring that new jobs will be created to meet the needs of the evolved workforce – while at the same time admitting that they don’t know what this workforce will actually be. Their assertions are simply based on historic examples: the fieldworker pushed out by harvesting machines only to apply their proficiency in physical labour elsewhere, or the telephone operators whose administrative skills resulted into expanded responsibilities in the wake of computer systems.

When entire industries are in the throes of unprecedented change now, it is not enough to simply say that jobs will appear in the future. If we – the lawyers, the mechanics, the retail sales assistant, the accountant, the executive assistant, the human resources officer – aren’t preparing for the new workforce today, then tomorrow we risk being put out to pasture like the horse in the wake of the automobile.

“This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility. This is something that’s emerging before us right now,” warns former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard economics professor Lawrence Summers. He has joined many experts in defying the notion that jobs will simply rise from the ashes of the traditional workforce, and is calling on leaders in government, technology, business, and education to deliver solid action and start preparing workers for what’s to come.

Until that action is implemented, this modern Frankenstein will continue its reign of terror. Workers will look to the past for security, not the future for opportunity. They will be left disillusioned, angry, and irrelevant.

We must not remain passive until this change is upon us. It is time to start raising our concerns; to define our futures, like humans must in times of revolution, lest they come to define us.

Come back next week, when we’ll discuss how you
can remain employable in an automated world.

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