Workshop at is4si 2017

(On June 12, 2017, I chaired a workshop at the International Society for Information Systems Conference, at Chalmers, Gothenburg. I used the application Kahoot to organize s discussion involving all participants in plenum. Kahoot is a great tool, but the projection technology broke down turning the workshop into a difficult but interesting experience. Here are my notes for the workshop.)

The Future of Work

It all started with a short report by Oxford-researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne (2013), “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” which was interpreted to say that in the next 20 years half of all current jobs will disappear. There will be massive unemployment and societies will have to introduce ”universal basic income” and prepare for a world with increasing divisions and social conflicts between elites and unemployed masses. In this debate we will look closer at the arguments for this bleak future, ask us what science can tell us about the future, consider different scenarios for the future of work, and maybe even question the importance of work.

The topic is difficult and complex but fortunately we have secured a panel with exceptional competence – the panel is all of you. We will use digital technology to organize a crowd based debate, a “crowdbate”, and use the intelligence of the crowd to throw fresh light on the future of work.

Panel debates are like elite soccer games. 50 000 people come to watch 22 people play. Today we are all going to participate in the panel. I think the world would be a better place if more soccer games or panel debates were like that. Technology will make it possible, eventually. Or what do you think. Let us test our technology. So just go to (or open the app if you already have it on your device) and enter the following pin code XXXXX.

Then answer the first question:

  1. Have you used Kahoot before?
  2. Will the world be a better place if everyone participates?

The theme of this panel is The Future of Work and this is a very complex topic. But let us begin with the report/paper that at least here in Sweden really brought the topic to political attention. I am thinking of the report by the Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne which was published in 2013. (Another contribution was the bestselling book by Brynjolfson and McAfee (2014) The Second Machine Age.) In their report they claimed that 50 % of the jobs people have today can be taken over by digital systems and robots within the next 20 years. Let us look at this claim. First a question:

  1. Do you think that Frey and Osborne are right?

1 This time is different?
Frey and Osborne gives us an interesting overview of the history of automation, and basically what they argue is that this time is different. Automation replaces farmers, to give one example. In 1880, 80 % of working Swedes were farmers. Now the farmers are 2 %. Historically, automation has always created more jobs than it replaced. But automation with digital technology happens too quickly, according to Frey and Osborne. Do you agree?

  1. Is this time different?

2 The science behind predictions like these
What is the science behind these claims? How good is it? Frey and Osborne collected some of their colleagues to a workshop and there they asked themselves what job tasks could be performed by digital technology. Question:

  1. Do you think this is a good method to use trying to answer the question about jobs in the near future?

3 Job Changes
What jobs will disappear? What is the role of education? What about new jobs? Services and knowledge jobs.

  1. Do you think all simple jobs will disappear?
  2. Is a simple job one that you don’t need education to do?
  3. Will all low education jobs disappear?
  4. Will personal trainers be replaced by robots?
  5. When will autonomous cars replace drivers?
  6. Will new jobs be invented that we cannot even imagine today?

Many job tasks that could be done by machines are still done by human beings of course. So the method used by Frey and Osborne is not really decisive. Automation in practice depends on a lot of different factors. Salaries is one factor. If salaries are low enough people can compete with machines.

  1. Will there be lots of personal servants?
  2. Will we see job polarization?

Will the world become divided into a few very rich people and many, many poor ones (even more than today when 8 billionaires own the same amount as the 50 % poorest)? Will the world be divided into well paid knowledge workers and ill paid service workers and unemployed? Will the middle class disappear?

4 The end of work?
Global, digital services will make a handful of entrepreneurs and developers extremely rich. Those digital services will replace labor all over the world. So perhaps universal basic income (UBI) is the only solution. But UBI is possible only if we can tax those rich people. What a bleak future. But would not UBI be wonderful – we don’t have to work, we could do philosophy or arts or just play all life long?

  1. Would you want a life with play rather than work?
  2. Is UBI just an American version of the European welfare system already in place?

5 The idea of work
What is work, anyway? For a long time, work was all about satisfying basic needs: getting food, clothes for the winter, a house to live in, protection against nature and other humans. Now, that technology does very much of this, there are other things we do when we work. Take amateur soccer, for instance, which is mostly about educating and occupying the young, but which demands a lot of work from parents. This is unpaid work, but like many other work tasks that used to be unpaid it can become paid work.

  1. Can work be defined as an activity that someone is willing to pay for?

In a market society such as ours, work can be defined as an activity that someone is willing to pay for. Jobs are created by entrepreneurs who come up with ideas for products and services that can find a market. As long as we remain creative and there is money around there will always be work.

Of course, we will remain creative. Therefore the real challenge is for money to be distributed equally enough to support a big enough demand on products and services. So there is a strong argument for UBI to kick in if unemployment increases. That means that the future of work will depend on politics.

  1. Is the future of work then a political question?

In the discussion today the future of work is treated as a question of what digital technology will mean for human work. But is really the future of work a question of technology? Is it not instead a question of how we organize our societies? That is, really a political question. Jobs in our sorts of societies are created by entrepreneurs building companies, employing people. Companies need a market to sell their products and services. If there will be jobs for people or not depends on how well the market functions and how creative entrepreneurs will be in coming up with ideas for products and services that people are willing to pay for. Technology has a role in all this, of course, but it is not technology that will decide whether there are jobs for people or not. Politics has an important role to play in making possible a well-functioning market with a financial system and room for sellers, buyers and competition. The rest is up to each one of us to be innovative and curious about innovations.

Bo Dahlbom