The genius of Daniel Susskind’s book, A World Without Work, lies in its ability to make a complex subject like labor economics and impact of automation, accessible to the lay reader. And in holding your hand, guiding you to the mountain-top and showing you the course taken by Man’s relationship with technology through the ages. Even if you have no background in economics and lead a prosaic life, like most people, this book will expand your mental horizons.
A World Without Work is no polemic against automation nor a pessimistic prose about our Dystopian future; David Susskind lays out the facts, walks you through his thought process as he arrives at his conclusions. He explains difficult concepts like how your favorite Professor from college would; in a calm, reassuring voice with none of the truculent attitude that’s so commonplace today.
In the book, we learn how economic growth and automation anxiety seem intertwined. While Keynes introduced the term ‘technological unemployment’, throughout the history of machines there have been two distinct forces at play; the harmful substituting force and helpful complimenting force. And in the past, technological advances always brought economic prosperity, resulting in job creation, albeit accompanied by changes in the nature of the work done.
Susskind goes on to explain the pragmatist revolution in AI where machines do not replicate how humans think, but instead, using vast amounts of processing power, sophisticated algorithms and mining human experience figure out what to do themselves. Machines are no longer riding on the coat-tails of human intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence, Susskind explains, will lead us from ‘frictional technological unemployment’ (where there is work to be done by humans, just that not all workers are capable of doing it) to ‘structural technological unemployment’ – where there will be fewer jobs for humans to do. The world of work, according to Susskind, will not end with a bang but a withering in demand for the work of human beings.
While these problems lie beyond the horizon, the book draws our attention to an immediate issue facing us; rising economic. The book posits that AI will only exacerbate this inequality and humans need to find new ways to share economic prosperity without relying on jobs and the labor market. While more education may seem like the best response to the threat of structural technological unemployment, in the end, humans may be no match to machines. Susskind’s socialist recommendations to address this challenge may seem an anathema to the most of us fed on a steady diet of market economics and capitalism.
Daniel Susskind begins his last chapter with a Jewish joke to confront you with the question, what does your work really mean? The meaning of work has changed since the time of the hunter-gatherer, today work is not just a source of income but of meaning, purpose and direction in life. Hence. technological unemployment threatens our very sense of self. And the prospect of no jobs available for us to do is not as terrifying as the question, what will we do with all the free time available to us?
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