2019 in Review: 10 Must-Read Papers on the Future of Work

Opinions about automation and AI sometimes vary between two extremes. It’s either the end of humans’ usefulness in the labor market or the dawn of a new age of productivity and human advancement.

But reality tends to exist somewhere along that continuum. We like the sober and upbeat opinion of Fei-Fei Li, co-director of the Stanford University Human-Centered AI Institute: “I imagine a world in which AI is going to make us work more productively, live longer, and have cleaner energy.” 

To tackle this wide-ranging topic, we’ve selected 10 insightful essays, papers, and articles that delve deep into the changing world of work amid technological and societal shifts.

1. ‘The Future Is Ours: Women, Automation, and Equality in the Digital Age’

The capabilities of robots and AI are continuously improving, and the dystopian vision of a post-human economy has not arrived. Indeed, technological forces are reshaping certain sectors and jobs, but the increased productivity gains will be “recirculated,” leading to new occupations and “new sources of wealth,” as Carys Roberts, Henry Parkes, Rachel Statham and Lesley Rankin at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argue in their paper.

Yet the writers warn of a potential gender bias in the number of women who may be affected by automation. “Our analysis shows that twice as many women as men work in occupations with a high potential for automation.” 

But there could be an effective way to address the gender inequalities, along with low productivity levels and other pressing issues like employee mental health. Adopting a four-day work week might solve some of these problems, as researchers at the U.K.-based think tank Autonomy argue. They assert that a shorter working week would help to alleviate many personal and environmental stresses. 

2. ‘Artificial Intelligence and Employment: Will History Repeat?’ 

There tends to be a hyperbole underpinning the AI narrative. Elon Musk, for example, dramatically vocalizes AI’s future impact in which robots do everything better than humans. 

But instead of clinging to hype and exaggeration, Steven Globerman at the Fraser Institute soberly assesses how previous waves of automation have affected the way we work. He makes a judgement call as to whether AI will have a significantly different impact on work, the economy, and society. His conclusion: Technologies change the mix of skills workers need, but we’re not likely to see a huge reduction in overall employment. 

Toning down the hyperbole is essential to furthering the development of AI, says Wim Naudé

professorial fellow at Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology at United Nations University. Indeed, without adopting a more nuanced stance, the AI debate might lose the public’s interest and even fail to secure funding, which would be similar to what happened in the 1980s, he adds.

A red haired computer programmer who works on new code; future of work concept

3. ‘AI, automation, and the future of work: Ten things to solve for’

Automation and AI won’t only be good for business transformation through increased productivity. They will also address societal challenges such as healthcare and environmental sustainability, James Manyika and Kevin Sneader at McKinsey argue.

When it comes to work specifically, we should expect some job roles to be lost, others to change, and many new roles to be created. “While we believe there will be enough work to go around (barring extreme scenarios), society will need to grapple with significant workforce transitions and dislocation,” Manyika and Sneader write. 

“Workers will need to acquire new skills and adapt to the increasingly capable machines alongside them in the workplace. They may have to move from declining occupations to growing and, in some cases, new occupations.”

4. ‘Are Robots Competing For Your Job?’

Jill Lepore at The New Yorker points to a shift from blue-collar robots to white-collar robots, suggesting that some knowledge workers’ roles will be replaced by AI. She adds, however, that another threat to white-collar jobs is in play: Remote intelligence, or overseas workers taking U.S. jobs without crossing the border because those people are working online. 

Lepore’s point isn’t all doom and gloom. Employees can plan for their futures by following advice from a book she cites, Richard Baldwin’s “The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work.” His advice includes:

  • Don’t try to compete with AI (or remote intelligence, for that matter).
  • Build the kind of skills that only humans can perform.
  • Think of your humanity as a competitive edge.

5. ‘The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions’

The technological revolution is upon us, and AI could herald a transformation just as the harnessing of electricity, mass production, and electronic telecommunications did in the past, David Autor, David A. Mindell and Elisabeth B. Reynolds explain in a report for the MIT Task Force.

Indeed, technology has been a powerful force of change in the past. As the world of work has changed, so too has society. The authors investigate whether the changes that AI and automation are set to bring, along with the increased aggregate economic output, will actually lead to people working and living in better ways. 

It’s the responsibility of governments, institutions, and companies to ensure benefits accrue to society. Accordingly, how these bodies decide on investment policies will bear significant weight on the collective future. 

6. ‘New technology and the world of work: the winners and the losers’

The AI and automation debate has been too focused on job losses. “The doomsday scenario of massive job losses is hard to resist simply because it has happened before,” argue Patrick Brione and Adrian Wakeling, at the UK’s Involvement & Participation Association and Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, respectively.

But they add that previous industrial revolutions have always resulted in more jobs created than lost. Tempting as it is to get lost in the numbers, the pair stress that greater nuance is needed in the automation and AI debate. For instance, new tech keeps workers physically safer but could lead to increased social isolation. 

Indeed, their policy paper aims to address the “double-edged sword” of modern tech: improved productivity with potentially increased stress and isolation. And it pays attention to finding balance between the two.

7. ‘Robotics, artificial intelligence, and the evolving nature of work’

What is the role of the human worker in the future economy? Undoubtedly, it will be different from what has come before, researchers Craig Webster and Stanislav Ivanov explain in the chapter they’ve co-written for the book “Business Transformation in Data Driven Societies.”

Webster and Ivanov explore the evolution of robots and how they have affected (and will change) the economy. They further make predictions about the potential market and political responses that may arise.

The writers also address how human workers can remain relevant and competitive in the modern labor market. They will need to reskill, of course, but they will also need the help of educational institutions, which will have to change what they teach and how they deliver these lessons to new generations of workers. 

Young female manager consulting on phone, using laptop at work place; future of work concept

8. ‘Automation and the Future of Work’

Machines can play table tennis, cook food, converse, and conduct symphonies. They can drive trucks, carry weapons and identify cancers. But Aaron Benanav at New Left Review says machines aren’t yet capable of opening doors or jars efficiently, and they struggle to fold laundry. Even self-driving cars need human intervention. 

So, what are these machines capable of in terms of the productivity debate? Benavav says the question relies on understanding the relationship between “rising technological dynamism and worsening economic stagnation” in which “productivity-growth rates appear to rise when, in reality, output-growth rates are falling.” 

Getting to grips with this relationship is key to understanding whether technological change is merely a “secondary cause of a low labour demand.” Benanav has a follow-up essay that will explore social-political dynamics through the lens of that relationship. Look for that essay in the subsequent edition of New Left Review.

9. ‘Changing My Mind About AI, Universal Basic Income, and the Value of Data’

If AI and automation were to take away jobs, then how would people earn money? Vi Hart at The Art of Research focuses on how universal basic income (UBI) is increasingly appearing in conversations about AI.

The basic premise of UBI is to give every person an income to meet basic needs. People can choose to work or not, knowing they will be paid their UBI regardless. It is fundamentally different from other welfare policies as it is unconditional, Hart argues.

“As more and more existing jobs become obsolete, UBI could allow people to work on whatever they want, even if they’re not employable at market prices,” she says. That could even mean retraining for new types of jobs.

10. Fiction and AI Empathy 

The power of storytelling cannot be overstated. Flynn Coleman at Literary Hub says it informs common values and helps people understand themselves, each other, and their relationships to the rest of the world. 

“A data point representing one million people doesn’t penetrate our minds or hearts, and humans remember little from this type of information,” Coleman writes. “But the story of one person—a face, a visual, and a narrative that stands for millions, the humanity in the data—is how we understand and feel compelled to engage in the world around us.”

Coleman then examines the effects that fiction can have on AI’s ability to learn empathy.

Images by: Mahdis Mousavi, Dmytro Sidelnikov/©123RF Stock Photo, milkos/©123RF Stock Photo