There is one thing that is discussed a great deal in these months when it comes to the future. Yuval Harari in his last essays called it the Useless Class, a class of people with education and/or skills, which are easily automatable, meaning that they can be easily replaced by machines equipped with artificial intelligence.
The useless class is a term that is not very empathetic but tremendously effective, they will be those people who may not be of real use to society in the future, because they are simply not able to do anything useful, but above all they are not able to learn anything useful because progress is too fast for them.
The replacement of human work with work automated by machines is not something we have to wait the future for, because it has been happening for decades.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the invention of the automobile, in the space of a decade, freed horses from their activity as the main means of transportation for people. With them, farriers, grooms and all those jobs that orbited around the figure of the horse have also taken early retirement.
Sometime later, the Automatic Distribution System was invented, a machine able to automatically route telephone calls from one user to another, without the need for a human operator to physically switch a cable from one hole to another.
All those jobs were lost, but new jobs were born, such as teleshopping operators and developers of smartphone apps.
This process of replacing human operators with artificial operators, with the consequent loss of jobs, has been going on for decades or centuries. Every time scientific/technological progress advances one step further, someone loses his job and someone else gains it.
So why so much concern? Is it possible that this balance between lost jobs and earned jobs will continue even in that future that cause so much anxiety?
Yet, there are some differences between today and the past.
The first difference is speed. Progress does not run at a constant speed but at exponential speed. It means that today the speed of change is greater than it used to be. If 300 years ago a child, once grown up, could have done the same job as his grandfather, 100 years ago instead, the son of a farrier, born in the pre-automobile era, could no longer follow in the footsteps of his father because that job simply no longer existed when he became an adult.
Today the speed of change is even faster, a graduate in computer engineering who helped his father in the family bakery for 3 years after graduation, on his return to the world of coding will have a hard time to update and get back on track with all the new programming languages, frameworks and technological structures born in the meantime.
This relentless progression has no reason to stop, so in the coming years, the time of inactivity that leaves behind a fresh graduate will go from 3 years to 5 months.
Inevitably there will come a time when the human being, not only will not have the opportunity to pause for a moment, but also, by never interrupting their training, will still not be able to keep up with the pace of technological development.
Then who on earth will be able to keep up with this frantic technological evolution? The answer is: only machines.
Let’s take an example. Let’s assume that tomorrow the world will be presented with the first Artificial Family Doctor (AFD), a system capable of diagnosing common disorders and diseases of the patients under its care.
This is only a “relatively” futuristic hypothesis since the technology is already visibly converging towards this goal. IBM’s Watson, is an AI Agent which in 2011 defeated the American human champions of the TV quiz Jeopardy, already supports doctors around the world by interpolating Terabytes of data and statistics that no human being would be able to handle. Moreover, there are already many systems of Artificial Narrow Intelligence, able to diagnose different types of diseases, such as cancers (even in a premature state), through computer vision and machine learning.
Narrow AI’s already have Super-human capabilities (far greater than any human being) in terms of accuracy, speed and ability to manage a huge amount of data, but they are only able to operate in that “narrow” sector. For any other task, however simple, they wouldn’t even know where to start.
All these Narrow AI’s, however, are converging to create layers of complex structures that will soon merge into an Artificial Family Doctor.
When this will happen, the AFD will have numerous advantages over the human one. First, it will be ubiquitous. We will no longer have to physically go to the doctor studio and queue up for an audition, but being a software, it will always be available directly at home through any of our devices. Moreover, it will be there 24/7, it will never lose patience, it will never be tired, mad, sad, frustrated, distracted or unkind. We will be allowed to “wake it up” at night and ask it all the questions we want. It will be the paradise (or hell) of hypochondriacs.
In addition, the AFD will not need to take a weekend to take a refresh course, because the system will be constantly updated, with all the latest news of his discipline, with all techniques, drugs, protocols and new discoveries. It will be aware of every epidemic in the area, will be able to interpolate infinite statistical data on drugs and diseases around and it will never forget our health record. With all the information, it will be able to obtain the highest possible effectiveness in the diagnosis and provide us with the best remedy for our disorders without ever missing a beat. We will have literally the best doctor on the planet, and it will be available for everybody at the same time.
Once we have achieved all this, only an AFD will be able to keep up with the pace of advancement of knowledge, science, and technology. No human doctor will be able to stay updated at such a speed and compete in effectiveness, cost and timeliness with such a system. Only an AI that can update instantly and ubiquitously can keep up with such a speed of the progress.
As for the health care, in any domain, only artificial systems will be able to keep up with the speed of technological development we will face. No human being will be able to do it anymore.
However, we must say that this dreadful progress will accompany this concerning job erosion with a very positive outcome; a massive reduction in the costs of products and services, in all areas.
An activity that does not have to pay human employees will see its operating costs reduced by an average of 70%, while the remainings will be minor costs, such as start-up costs, energy, maintenance and raw materials. But startup costs are depreciated quite quickly and will fade over time. The cost of energy will also be very low or near zero, given the progression of solar technologies. Maintenance can also be often automated, reducing human intervention to a minimum, while raw materials would remain the only essential cost, but only for those activities that produce physical items and not digital services.
So, almost all the production activities will see a drastic reduction in costs and we will find ourselves in a society where many of the costs we face today for our well-being will be cut by a large percentage.
Manual jobs will be automated first. Drivers, carriers, assembly line assistants, cleaners, maintenance workers, etc. But then it will be the turn of the intellectual professions; doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and so on.
This is obviously worrying from the point of view of employment, but imagine the costs of consulting a law firm where all lawyers are algorithms that do not have to be paid and where will be zeroed also the costs of renting a physical office, lawyers commuting, taxes and even those of stationery.
The result of all this is that the cost of living will be much lighter, consequently, the need for money for us will shrink and therefore the need to work will be reduced.
For this reason, the exponential factor of progress we are talking about, on one hand will cut jobs, but on the other hand will cut the need to work.
Basic needs will be covered by the Universal Basic Income, that will hopefully be truly Universal and not limited to the most virtuous countries.
The progression of these two factors is hard to predict. Which of the two will come faster than the other is impossible to say because the equation includes global variables such as politics, market, economies and technology itself, but we can say with certainty that the race between these two factors will determine whether, in the future, we will live in a softer or harsher world.