Replacing humans with robots clearly has a dystopian flavour. But could the successive waves of artificial intelligence (AI) and other exponentially developing technologies displacing jobs, ranging from banker to construction worker, have potential positives for the environment?
According to a 2016 McKinsey automation study, about a third of most job activities, affecting 49 per cent of the world economy or an estimated 1.1 billion employees and $12.7 trillion in wages, are technologically automatable.
More dramatically, The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Future of Jobs study predicts 3.5 times more jobs lost than created between 2015 and 2020 through labour market disruption – suggesting potential reductions in the associated resource and emissions impacts. The study also estimates that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today would work in job types that don’t yet exist. This implies an as yet unknowable ecological footprint for the more environmentally conscious generations coming into the world of work.
Rethinking the notion of jobs
Because of the impact of automation, over the next few years we will be challenged to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the foundational role of paid employment in society. What is a job? Is it a series of tasks for getting things done? Is it a marker of socio-economic distinction? Is it the only means of making a living?
Though the answers to these questions seem obvious today, there is good reason to think that – by the time today’s seven- to 11-year olds enter the workforce – these terms may be on the path to becoming obsolete relics of the past.
Some observers expect the future to be radically different, going so far as suggesting that the notion of jobs and incomes may all but disappear in western societies over the next 15 to 20 years – replaced by infinite leisure time, the pursuit of individual purpose, and the receipt of guaranteed basic incomes (GBI) and services (GBS).
But let’s leave aside these social, moral and ethical considerations, and look instead at the ecological benefits of workplace automation.
A smart office, with few humans and the widespread use of AI and online ‘cloud-based’ solutions should reduce requirements for space, energy, resource, lighting, heating, ventilation, sanitation, waste, and commuting. Reducing all of these would have positive impacts on carbon footprint, sustainability, and the bottom line. These cost savings might then be channeled into paying for some form of automation taxes or robot levy that would be required to fund the provision of GBI and GBS.
New sustainable behaviours
New human possibilities could also emerge as the environmental outlook improves; for example, slowing carbon output enough to offset rising temperatures and heat waves. We could see renewed interest and opportunities in outdoor activities, ranging from ecological farm work to personal trainers and customized tour operators.
Highly personalised services might create jobs that AI will struggle with for some time to come. These are likely to be jobs involving deeper human contact and engagement, interpreting subtle verbal and behavioural cues, and using the insights to create highly personalised services. Of course, eventually almost any entrepreneurially-minded soul will be able to access extremely advanced AI cheaply or for free. The technology will also get smarter – further eroding the human-machine boundary by providing tailored dietary advice, fitness regimes, and meditation routines.
Healthier design decisions to make the workplace desirable, sustainable, and comfortable could also be facilitated by AI by automating office layouts based on individual preferences for natural light and privacy. Such personalization would require us to compromise privacy – for example, constant surveillance would allow an AI to make smart suggestions on modifying human behaviors to minimize carbon footprint. Is this desirable?
Using GBI / GBS to Drive Sustainable Provision
With millions of workers potentially displaced from their jobs in cities, some form of GBI/GBS seems inevitable. Governments around the world in countries such as Finland are already conducting experiments to understand the mechanisms and second and third order effects of such provisions. Indeed, greater government procurement of services could help to enforce tougher environmental standards and GBS could be used to incentivize the purchase of products with stronger ecological and sustainability credentials.
Urbanization trends may also reverse in a net job reduction scenario, since the potentially lower cost of living in rural areas could give people the opportunity to do more with less. This effect would be magnified if the changes gave a boost to growth of decentralized networks of local economies. The combinatorial effects of new technologies such as 3D printing and drone transport could enable the localization of most activities – further reducing the ecological footprint of manufacturing and transport.
Technology as a Tool for Good
We are clearly at a crucial point in history. Disruptive technology is in and of itself neutral; it has no intention or meaning until humans make decisions about why and how to use it. Hence, society can take the opportunity to think sustainably and use technology as a tool for good, in terms of creating new outlets for human talent and helping control our impact on ecological systems. Making such choices and developing the skills required to ensure survival, stewardship, and sustainability of the planet are domains that, for the foreseeable future, AI can only supplement, not drive. We believe humans must be behind the wheel.
Educating people to bring a sustainable mindset to new jobs may become another source of invigoration for the employment outlook. For example, internships and job training programs for green industries would provide teaching, training, coaching, and mentoring opportunities for experts in a number of areas. Clearly, it will take careful training and emotional support to help lawyers retrain as organic farmers or landscape gardeners and for displaced retail workers to be able to take jobs in nature sanctuaries, as the wildlife once endangered by office and retail development is restored to a safer habitat.
Green and Automated Jobs
While today’s workers largely unconsciously create an ecological sustainability burden, it’s possible that the changing nature of the workplace and tomorrow’s jobs could help us harmonize more with nature. It’s an ironic scenario – workplace automation leading to ecological nirvana and destruction of jobs enabling survival of the planet. At present, the AI we know from sci-fi movies seems cold and impersonal, and very far from nature. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the shrinking of the workforce via AI automation may in fact generate new excitement for jobs with environmental purpose and an economic system able to sustain (instead of just exploit) natural resources. The jobs of the future might be extremely automated and green.
Sustainable Consumption, Production, and Automation
Values are the drivers behind our social behavior and patterns of consumption. Currently, most societies are governed by “modern” values like competition and achievement. These ideas have fed the paradigm of the pursuit of infinite growth and consumerism as a driving assumption for business strategies and a policy cornerstone for governments. However, there is a growing sense that a shift in social values is on its way, with greater interest in “enoughness”, sustainability, transparency, and collaboration.
This shift could increasingly change both the decisions made by consumers, as well as the choices about where a person works and under what conditions. Thanks to automation and AI, the future workforce is likely to be smaller in numbers, but equipped with greater information, insight, knowledge and an enhanced capacity to act effectively and in an ecologically sound manner. By bringing foresight to the entire issue of technological change, we can ensure that the outcomes serve both humanity and the environment in more sustainable ways.
Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.