On the 4th industrial revolution and The Meaning in the next age

Unlike the industrial revolution and the computer revolution, the artificial intelligence revolution is not taking certain jobs and replacing them with other jobs. Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs,” writes Kai-Fu Lee in his opinion for New York Times.

As “connected” millennials, I am sure that most of you are pretty aware of the global discussion on the rise of this new phenomenon. From academia to business, many leaders talk about what our societies will be like in the coming years. These pioneers try to forecast the challenges that humankind will face, and warn us about the potential disasters that might even “root out” our species from this universe one day. There is a consensus that the exploding development of artificial intelligence marks the beginning of a new era. As every previous industrial revolution, this one means change in our education systems, in our labour-markets, in our geopolitics and in our perceptions of life.

Change calls for adaptation. As a fundamental pillar of our society, the education system and its curriculum will have to react to this “shock” early on. During the industrial revolution in the 19th century, factory jobs started overtaking agricultural ones. Employers realized that more educated workers were more productive, and literacy and numeracy skills thus became much more important in the market. Very soon, the idea of universal state education based on a factory model was born in order to give a much wider range of people the right qualifications to meet the expectations of the market. Industrialisation not only transformed the market, but also education.

Today, this is exactly what the “prophets” of artificial intelligence urge our policy makers and decision takers to do. This revolution requires the working class of the future to master new skills. Tomorrow, what will matter are the so-called character skills such as perseverance, sociability, curiosity and, most importantly, the ability to adapt to new situations and reinvent ourselves. Even with the internet revolution (aka digital revolution), traditional knowledge had, to a certain extent, become obsolete. In the new age, the only thing that will matter will be the ability to relearn… as fast as possible.

In a research dating from 2013, two Oxford researchers estimated that 47 percent of US jobs would be replaced by computer algorithms and robots within the next 20 years. These jobs go from the legal domain to catering or health sectors. Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, argues that manufacturing is no longer “the main engine of creating jobs”. However, as more tasks become susceptible to automation, new jobs will, of course, spawn. These will involve creativity, planning and cross-domain thinking, as well as “people skills”, competencies which the current state of the art suggests are not “achievable” with a smart algorithm.

However, this prediction was made 4 years ago. Back then, artificial intelligence was not yet a source of big concern. What is it, then, which has forged so much excitement among experts in only so little time? “Artificial intelligence products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better,” warns Mr Lee.

When it comes to job creation, two main concerns occur for our societies of specialized labour, which consists in learning more and more about less and less. First of all, artificial intelligence, by definition, is a creation that develops exponentially: the stronger it gets, the more it will develop rapidly and the stronger it will continue to become. This implies that our markets will not be reconstructed just once. In the age of this technology, transformation will happen repeatedly… and every time more rapidly. Will we be able to keep up with that and constantly reinvent ourselves at the right pace?

Secondly, “humans are nothing more than organic algorithms,” as Yuval Noah Harari, historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, likes to claim. He believes that there is no guarantee that a non-organic algorithm will never be able to surpass an organic one. Thus, there will undoubtedly be a moment when intelligent machines and software will simply outperform humans in the “whole” cognitive field, let alone in physical actions… leaving us with few to no jobs at all.


What will we do when all tasks become susceptible to smart automation?

Ideas of universal basic income have been around for a long time already. Today, some sovereign states test small scale programs to examine the feasibility of such a system and its effects on beneficiaries. It is not to doubt that an alternative mechanism for redistributing wealth will be needed. Yet, I believe this should not be our most crucial concern. Indeed, the 4th industrial revolution might cause an unprecedented wealth gap (with very few keeping smart algorithms under their control/property) but we will most probably find a solution to feed and support people. However, there is a more fundamental question to be addressed: humans, by nature, need to be kept busy. There needs to be a content, a substance, a meaning in life. Even though non-conformists might argue the contrary, work is a fundamental corner stone of today’s social cohesion (at least of the western one) and serves as substance.

So, what will keep the jobless masses of the future together?

To be continued…

Nihat M. Cingöz