Academy Xi Blog

Self Identity in the Post-Work Era

By Charbel Zeaiter

On the back of my presentation at Future Assembly, we’re contemplating more and more the potential effects of AI as well as the massive, inevitable changes that will result from having to rethink who we are when work may no longer be the predominant way in which we identify ourselves.

The idea that one day we would have smart machines has been floated for centuries. We have grown up hearing Sci-Fi stories that are optimistic about our artificial future, as well as those imagining the world as a futuristic wasteland where humans are no longer required. Technology has finally reached a point where ideas from these stories are coming to life and it’s now becoming important for us to understand the flow on effects these changes are going to have on life as we know it.

Robots are becoming increasingly present in the workplace. Robots like Baxter, brainchild of Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics (formerly MIT), is marketed as being able to complete “the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor”. Just this week Hitachi announced that they are introducing intelligent robots to supervise and manage their employees. The robots ‘hired’ by Hitachi may be able to manage employees on the floor, and boost productivity, but at what cost?

Management at its core has a core human element that focuses on motivating, leading, relationships and empathy. What will the fallout be for the human workers without this human element, and how long will it be before the robot supervisor is supervising a completely automated workforce?

Sure we can design intelligence, but what about emotional intelligence? One Japanese company thinks they can. Aldebaran, has created Pepper, the social robot, who was designed to live with humans. Pepper is described as being “a companion able to communicate with you through the most intuitive interface we know: voice, touch and emotions.” Pepper is able to understand someone’s emotional state by analysing their facial expressions, body language, and word choices, but is that really authentic emotional intelligence? How much deeper is it?

Recognising someones mood is one thing, are we ever going to be able to design empathy? Are we ever going to be able to design a program so complex that it can genuinely understand and help its human counterpart navigate their human emotions? And really, is designing emotional intelligence something we should do? Do we really need robots that are emotionally intelligent?

There is another question that we have to ask ourselves when we start imagining this modern, completely autonomous workforce. When the world’s production capability reaches 100% continual production – what are they producing? Who is it for? And honestly, how much stuff do we actually need? With our current production output doing irreversible, and downright devastating damage to the planet, it begs the question, why are we really pursuing this kind of technology. Will our changing attitudes towards sustainability and protecting the planet be in alignment with the attitudes of organisations whose production lines will no longer be limited by the output capacity of humans?

“Ultimately though, the biggest change we are facing now is how will we define ourselves when work ceases to be the centrepiece upon how we introduce ourselves?”

There are some pretty confronting statistics flying around about the amount of jobs the world looks like it will be losing over the next decade. Yet with all this uncertainty, and doom-and-gloom there are also some pretty startling opportunities. People have this exciting reason now to reinvent themselves, and to learn new things. Is what we do really what defines us? If and when machines begin to dominate the workforce, will people be free to start exploring who they are, and what makes them truly happy?