Artificial Intelligence and human work.

The best computer is a man, and it’s the only one that can be mass-produced by unskilled labour.” (Wernher von Braun)

Last night I began to think further about the role of AI and humans in society while attending Future Advocacy’s launch of a report on “Maximising the opportunities and minimising the risks of artificial intelligence in the UK”. While a very useful contribution which I recommend, my friend Rose Luckin[1] (Prof in Education Technology @ UCL) rightly criticised the lack of specific focus on improving education and pointed out that our current education strategy centres around teaching children things computers do really well (basic maths, repetition, remembering things) rather than those AI will struggle with – creativity, critical thinking etc. This left me wondering what work humans are going to provide, and whether we really understand the skills requirement of a world with AI?

In thinking about this I recalled the quote from Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist that “The best computer is a man, and it’s the only one that can be mass-produced by unskilled labour.”  Since the onset of the industrial revolution mechanisation has replaced human skill and as Prof Murray Shanahan[2] said last night, already replaced many jobs. After all, only around 5% of us work on agriculture today. It is therefore not a question of whether, but the degree to which new AI technology will replace jobs – and the economic efficiency of that replacement.

There are well-rehearsed arguments about the loss of jobs and plenty of books written on the subject[3]. Some jobs are clearly at risk such as professional driving in the face of self-driving technology[4]. Other jobs are safer as they involve complex unusual actions – plumbing, for example, is messy, contingent and complex (and Prof Shanahan argued this might be the last to go).

What is however lacking is a discussion of the new jobs that AI will create. Throughout history, we have underestimated the jobs created by digital technology. In 1943 IBM’s Thomas Watson predicted a worldwide-market of 5 computers, and in the 1980s people laughed at Bill Gates vision of a computer in every home.  Today we have spending forecasts for IT in the trillions[5]. With Bank of America anticipating that the “robots and AI solutions market will grow to US$153Bn by 2020” [6] it clear that disruptive innovation (Christensen, 1997) through these advanced algorithms will have a strong impact in creating new unimagined opportunity.

Since the rise of the industrial revolution we have created new jobs to replace those lost as people stopped working on farms and in factories: our grandparents would hardly imagine so many baristas, chefs, landscape gardeners, software engineering, financiers and marketers within modern society. What is interesting then is how AI might enhance and expand existing jobs, and create new ones. For instance, an AI supported lawyer might handle more cases so reducing the lawyer’s fees while maintaining their wages. This reduction may well mean more people can access the law rather than reducing the work for lawyers[7]. Similarly, we might imagine interior decorators “virtually” visiting our homes and recommending tasteful designs using AI and online stores. While I, like many others, are not currently prepared to pay designers fees for my small London home, if a store offered the service for a low fee I might well jump at the chance so creating new jobs in this area.

In this way, AI can offer huge efficiency savings which we should not necessarily be scared about. This is not however to downplay the risks to society – particularly as the distribution of this value may be inequitable with low-paid/low-skilled employees most at risk. If, however, we can ensure that those unable to capitalise on this opportunity aren’t left behind then I am cautiously optimistic.  We should also be aware that AI will likely create low-paid, low-skilled jobs as well. Someone will need to hold the 3d camera in my house for the AI designer to work. Someone will need to deliver parcels to my house for Amazon. Someone is needed to service the computers or clean up the data needed by the AI algorithm. And someone will need to make us all great coffee.

I am not trying to present a Utopian vision here – clearly there will be problems. But it is not the end of work either. After all, society has been very good at creating new work that involves sitting in front of computers shuffling files, writing text, and editing spreadsheets and PowerPoints – for people like me. Further, as Wernher von Braun’s quote reminds us – we humans are extremely good value in providing some extremely important intellegent activities: dealing with emotion and having empathy,  thinking creatively, interacting with other humans, understanding our human society and traditions. It will be a very long time, if even, before any AI can provide such intelligence. The problem is often that we underestimate the importance of these in modern work downplaying their significance in modern economic enterprise and thus overplaying the value technocratic automated AI might provide.

(This blog is an opinion piece based on personal musings rather than report on research)

CHRISTENSEN, C. M. 1997. The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail, Harvard Business Press.


[2] Prof Shanahan has a new book out which looks interesting:

[3] E.g. The Rise of the Robots (Martin Ford)

[4] This is particularly pertinent for industrial driving such as farming and mining where self-driving technology is arriving already



[7] For a full analysis of this debate read  or listen to the podcast of their talk at the LSE

Image (cc) Rolf obermaier – thanks!

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