Artificial intelligence, robots and the future of work

AI and robots seem to be everywhere, handling more and more work, freeing humans up -- to do what? Contributor Jill Eisen takes a wide-angle lens to the digital revolution happening in our working lives. What will happen when robots and algorithms surpass what our brains can do? Some say digital sweatshops -- repetitive, dull, poorly paid and insecure jobs -- are our destiny. Others believe that technology could lead to more fulfilling lives.
A 'female' robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant onin Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. (VCG via Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode54:00

AI and robots seem to be everywhere, handling more and more work, freeing humans up — to  do what? Contributor Jill Eisen takes a wide-angle lens to the digital revolution happening in our working lives. She starts in the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution saw the triumph of machine power over muscle power. Now artificial intelligence is on the verge of replacing our own intelligence. It took decades to adjust to machines out-performing human and animal labour. What will happen when robots and algorithms surpass what our brains can do? Some say digital sweatshops—repetitive, dull, poorly paid and insecure jobs—are our destiny. Others believe that  technology could lead to more fulfilling lives. **This episode is Part 1 of series. Part 2 airs Tuesday, February 6; Part 3 airs Tuesday, February 13. **This episode originally aired September 13, 2017.

Robert McChesney believes that we’re in the midst of a technological revolution that will be at least as disruptive as the first industrial revolution. 1:37

The digital age is transforming the way we work. Some would even say that artificial intelligence, robots, and automation are destroying it.

"The unions haven't come to grips with this. They're floundering. They're getting hammered. The Left used to think about whether unions could be revolutionary or not. Now the question is: can they can just defend people? And they can't." –Sam Gindin

No one doubts that AI, along with machine learning, advanced robotics, 3-D printing and the internet of things will disrupt the labour market. It's just a question of how much. One influential study coming out of Oxford University estimated that 47% of jobs in the U.S. could be eliminated using existing technologies. Everything from fast-food and retail jobs to legal and medical jobs are in the crosshairs.

The big question is whether new, well-paying jobs will come along to replace the old ones. If recent trends are any indication, it doesn't look good. Since the mid-1990's contract, part-time and temporary work have accounted for 60% of all new jobs across most developed countries, and in 2016 an astonishing 90% of new jobs in Canada were part-time.

If the benefits of the new technologies are to be broadly shared, there will have to be big changes ahead. Labour laws and employment standards will have to be rewritten, our social safety net will need strengthening, governments will have to take a more active role in directing the economy and unions will have to find new ways of representing workers.

Guests in the series:

  • Martin Ford, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and author of Rise Of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
  • Nick Srnicek, Lecturer at King's College in London, England. Author of Platform Capitalism and co-author of Inventing the Future.
  • Robert McChesney, Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, and co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.
  • Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at the University of Hertfordshire in London, England and author of Labour in the Global Digital Economy.
  • Guy Ryder, Director General of the International Labour Organization.
  • Chris Roberts, Director of Social and Economic Policy at the Canadian Labour Congress.
  • Sam Gindin, Former Research Director for the Canadian Auto Workers – now Unifor – and co-author of The Making of Global Capitalism.
  • Guy Standing, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and author of A Precariat Charter and Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen.
  • Sunil Johal, Research Director at University of Toronto's Mowat Centre and co-author of the reports, Working Without A Net and Policy Making for The Sharing Economy.
  • Juliet Schor, Professor in the Sociology Department of Boston College and author of The Overworked American and True Wealth.
  • Evelyn Forget, Health Economist at the University of Manitoba.

Further reading:

There's a huge number of books published on this topic since 2015. Here are some of them that Jill Eisen found helpful.

  • Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford, Basic Books, 2015.
  • People Get Ready, Robert McChesney and John Nichols, Norton Books, 2016.
  • Labour in the Global Digital Economy, Ursula Huws, Monthly Review Press, 2014.
  • A Precariat Charter, Guy Standing, Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • Basic Income: A Guide For The Open-Minded, Yale University Press, 2017.
  • True Wealth, Juliet Schor, Penguin Books, 2011.
  • The Overworked American, Juliet Schor, Basic Books, 1993.
  • Inventing The Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, 2015.
  • Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek, Verso, 2016.
  • The Making of Global Capitalism, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, Verso, 2013.
  • Utopia For Realists, Rutger Bregman, Little Brown, 2014.
  • The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton &Company, 2016.
  • Machine Platform Crowd, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
  • The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin, Tarcher, 1996.
  • The Future We Want, Sarah Leonard & Bhaskar Sunkara, Metropolitan Books, 2016.
  • Cyber-Proletariat, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Between The Lines, 2015.
  • The Wealth of Humans, Ryan Avent, St. Martin's Press, 2016.
  • What's Yours is Mine, Tom Slee, Between The Lines, 2016.
  • Peers Inc, Robin Chase, Public Affairs, 2015.
  • Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes, 1930.
  • Policy Making for The Sharing Economy, Sunil Johal and Noah Zon, Mowat Centre, U of T, 2015.

Related websites:

**This episode was produced by Jill Eisen and Greg Kelly.


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