Doing a surgery, driving a car or taking control of a mining site were things that only humans could do.
But with the development of artificial intelligence, there are algorithms programmed in machines that overcome human capabilities, such as carrying out surveillance missions or detecting cancerous tumors in a matter of hours.
Does this mean that doctors are going to disappear? Not necessarily, but the truth is that the world of work is changing at an exponential rate, says BBC Daniel Susskind, an economist at the University of Oxford, England, a leading expert in research on the impact of artificial intelligence on the future of work.
This is one of the topics that were debated at the G20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A debate that occupies an increasingly central place in international economic forums, given that the technological revolution is changing production methods, the way we work and the skills we need to develop urgently so as not to become obsolete.
Susskind argues that there are 3 myths about the future of work and explains why they are not true.
1. The myth ‘Terminator’
The idea that an army of robots will arrive at your workplace to take away your job has been around for a long time in film and literature.
That’s the Terminator myth , according to Susskind.
It is true that machines are displacing humans in specific tasks, he argues. But not only do they substitute them, they also complement them, making their work more valuable and important, like when GPS helps a taxi driver.
Machines not only replace, but also complement human tasks.
From that perspective, “if the global economy is a cake , technological progress has increased the size of that cake.”
Basically, because productivity increases, incomes rise and demand grows, explains the co-author of the bestseller “The Future of the Professions.”
Then “people who did certain jobs in the old cake, can find new functions in the new one,” he explains.
On the other hand, technological progress not only makes the cake bigger, it also changes its ingredients , since new industries and new jobs are created.
And that makes people change the way they spend their money, distribute it differently and buy new products.
2. The myth of intelligence
“The economists were wrong,” says Susskind. “They were fooled by the myth of intelligence.”
This myth is the belief that “machines must copy human reasoning to surpass us in performance,” he explains.
“30 years ago that idea was correct, now it is questionable and in the future it will be wrong”.
Previously it was thought that the machines could only carry out routine and predictable tasks after receiving a series of instructions.
But advances in sleeps ad processing and data storage, and the design of algorithms, show that “the distinction between routine and non – routine tasks is becoming less useful.”
For example, this year a group of researchers from Stanford University announced the development of a system that can identify if a spot on the skin is carcinogenic or not, with the same accuracy of a prestigious dermatologist’s diagnosis, says the economist.
In this case the machine does not try to copy the criteria, intuition or creativity of a doctor.
It does not know or understand anything about medicine, he says. What it does is run a pattern recognition algorithm to detect cancer and review 129,450 previous cases looking for similarities.
“It does it in a non-human way.”
That’s why the economist argues that the way humans think is not a limit to automation.
3. The myth of superiority
When production took the direction of mechanization, fear arose that machines would take the place of workers.
However, the economic argument that arose towards the end of the 19th century is that there is no fixed amount of work.
That is, the machines enter production, the price of the products decreases, the demand increases and more work is generated.
The current problem, warns Susskind, is that there will not be a lot of work to divide between people and machines.
“It is correct that technological progress increases the amount of work, but it is not true that humans will necessarily be in a better position to do those jobs.”
That is the myth of superiority: to believe that we are more capable than machines to take on the extra amount of work.
And the GPS, instead of helping the taxi driver, will complement the car without a driver.
A precarious balance
“The future of work depends on the balance between two forces: the replacement of labour by machines and complementarity.
“Until now, this balance has been in favor of humans,” says the economist.
“At some point the balance will tilt in favour of the machines.”
The problem, he warns, is that little by little the force of substitution has been imposed.
“If we take the three myths, we can get an idea of how unsettling the future is,” he adds.
“At some point, the balance will tilt in favor of the machines.”
The distribution of the cake
Faced with a rather disheartening outlook, Susskind believes that we are in a much better position than our ancestors.
And he explains it through an exercise.
“If we go to the first century of our era, we will see that if the pie of the global economy were divided into equal portions for all the people of the world, each one would receive a few hundred dollars.”
The distribution of wealth is one of the pending challenges.
Almost all people lived on the edge of the poverty line , or very close, he says.
If we go ahead a thousand years, the story remains the same, in general, he adds.
“But in the last hundred years, the economy has taken flight, the economic pie has exploded in size .”
“The world GDP per capita – the current value of those individual portions of the pie – is about US $ 10,150,” calculates Susskind.
“What has not been resolved is the challenge of distribution.”
In that context, he says, our problem is not to grow the economy like our ancestors, but to ensure that everyone receives a portion.
“And in a world with less work or even without work, it’s not clear how people will get their share of the pie .”
The educational challenge
In the medium term, in the next 10 or 15 years, the challenge will not yet be technological unemployment, argues Susskind.
“The challenge now is an educational challenge .”
The issue is how to ensure that people develop the skills and competencies needed to do the jobs that are still intended for humans.
Both at the level of creative tasks, problem solving or interpersonal relationships; as at the level of the jobs that will require coding, building and operating the machines.
According the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one in four adults has little or no experience working with computers.
The highest paid jobs require more skills for technological programming.
And in the schools there are many teachers who are not prepared to train children to face the next world of work.
“We have to help people compete with machines and build them, and we are failing to do these two things.”
In the long term, “it is possible that there is no work,” he says.
“Technological unemployment is real”.