Can the free market ensure artificial intelligence won't wipe out human workers?

People keep predicting that each wave of new technology will mean humans can put their feet up. It hasn't happened yet. Some economists and anthropologists who study the subject say even with the arrival of artificial intelligence, humans will remain integral to making the world go round.

Humans are fundamental to the economy. Anthropologists say AI won't change that

Shoppers admire a model of the Tesla humanoid robot at the automobile showroom in Toronto's Sherway Gardens. Tesla robot wide shot, Sherway Gardens, Toronto
Shoppers admire an example of the Optimus humanoid robot at the Tesla showroom in Toronto's Sherway Gardens mall earlier this month. Tesla boss Elon Musk showed off the device at the company's AI Day, saying it could be available for sale to the public as soon as 2025. (Don Pittis/CBC)

What will you be doing only a decade from now when advanced versions of the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT have wormed their way into the fabric of life?

According to some experts, you may be out of a job. Two current labour disputes involving autoworkers and screenwriters are at least partly about the future threat of AI.

When AI comes for the jobs, writers may be among the first to go, warn two respected technology mavens writing in Foreign Affairs magazine. And they are not alone in that view. Even current versions of the AI program ChatGPT can sketch clearer prose than most humans, they say. And those programs are getting better. 

By 2035, as "white-collar workers lose their jobs en masse," declare Ian Bremmer and Mustafa Suleyman, AI will be running hospitals and airlines and courtrooms. "A year ago, that scenario would have seemed purely fictional; today, it seems nearly inevitable."

Thumb-twiddling time?

For Bremmer and Suleyman, job losses are a relatively mundane result of the AI revolution. Their ultimate concern is nothing less than the usurping of government power by intelligent machines and those who control them.

But will massive numbers of writers and lawyers and stockbrokers and coders and office workers really be sent home to twiddle their thumbs in a little over 10 years? There are many thoughtful skeptics who say there are really good reasons why that just won't happen. And at the core of it all, they say, is our unique humanity.

Peeking 10 years into the future leaks into the realm of science fiction, and those who imagine the future — while sometimes offering useful warnings — can easily get things wrong. Viewing the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good reminder.

Douglas Trumbull was the industry pioneer behind the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner.
The 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where humans interact with murderous artificial intelligence, is a reminder that those who imagine the future can get things wrong. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

"Anyone who says they can tell you that they can predict what's going to happen is either deluded or lying," said Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder, who has written about AI in his novel Stealing Worlds and the short story The Suicide of our Troubles.

There is a certain irony in the comment, since Schroeder is also a professional futurist helping companies prepare for what may be around the corner.

He is convinced there is a value in using imagination to frame the possible extent of the AI problem as it becomes better at human tasks.

"It isn't any different from the question of what to do with the jackhammer when you're the guy with the pickaxe," Schroeder said. 

Essential human skills

The lack of certainty over how AI will develop — and how quickly — means its eventual impact is open to infinite speculation, he said. As governments around the world consider how to regulate it, the unknowable nature of what AI will become is just one of many complications.

But unless intelligent machines grow into evil geniuses that decide to crush us like bugs, said Schroeder and everyone else I talked to, there is one certainty in the future relationship between humans and machines, and that is humanity.

A nurse tends to a patient in a hospital.
AI can help alleviate nursing shortages — not by replacing nurses, but by handling boring and repetitive tasks so nurses can do jobs that machines can't. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"Much of what we do as humans, even though we have our official job titles, goes outside of the official job descriptions," said AJung Moon, who teaches computer engineering at McGill University in Montreal.

While the artificial intelligence and robotics expert sees various portions of jobs being stolen away by smart software, as that happens, she said, humans will do more of the things AI isn't so good at.

In her own job teaching university students, she sees AI taking away the boring, bureaucratic and redundant parts of the work, leaving her more time for the kind of human interaction that leads to student success.

"What is their learning journey like? What is their life like?" Moon said. "I can actually get to more forming of connections with my students."

Things robots cannot do

As someone who has been working at the leading edge of robotics for more than a decade, Moon said a lot of work humans do is in no danger from AI. Hands-on human finesse, the "haptic feedback" of human touch, fine motor skills, the ability to switch abruptly from gentle care and stroking to heavy tasks, or figuring out how to fix old piping in an old house — "that is impossible right now."

Despite the imminent arrival of devices like Elon Musk's Optimus robot, Moon said she doesn't see AI changing that any time soon, meaning that the many jobs that require human judgment, instant decisions and human dexterity will continue to need humans.

In a hospital, for example, artificial intelligence can count the pills, do the paperwork and help create efficiencies in treatment. The advantage is that it will leave more time for tasks where humanity remains indispensable.

That essential humanity entailing not just what we do and how we do it, but the reasons for doing it, is encapsulated in a concept called "human centricity." It is an approach at the core of work by anthropologist Paul Hartley, CEO of the Toronto-based Human Futures Studio, a kind of management consultancy that has helped tech companies from going off track.

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ChatGPT is a free AI chatbot that appears to be a huge improvement on any chatbot that has come before in terms of fluency, usefulness and resistance to the effects of being spammed with hateful content. In the short time since its release, it has delivered accurate computer code, decent poetry and above average high school essays, all with just a few text prompts.

"It's an articulation of how to keep people really at the centre," he said.

Hartley, author of the book Radical Human Centricity, said the concept predates recent thinking about AI, growing out of notions about "user experience," or "UX," in the technology sector where tech geeks might be tempted to wander off into the never-never land of technology for technology's sake.

In some science fiction future, AI may eventually be able to think for itself and find its own motivations that are incomprehensible to us. But until that time, no matter how advanced, AI will remain a tool for use by humans for human purposes, Hartley said.

A Heron unmanned multi-sensor aerial vehicle fitted with a Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence analytic platform flies above Ein Shemer, northern Israel July 17, 2023
A Heron unmanned multi-sensor aerial vehicle, fitted with a machine learning and artificial intelligence analytic platform, flies above Ein Shemer, a kibbutz in northern Israel, in July. With no single jurisdiction and unknown capacity, AI is hard to regulate. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

The essential lesson of human centricity is that technology and software tools, including AI, have no purpose if they fail to respond to human needs.

The requirements of humanity, insists Vurain Tabvuma, a professor at the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary's University in Halifax who has collaborated with Hartley, are also at the heart of why human work will never be supplanted by AI.

Even after it becomes ubiquitous in a decade or so, Tabvuma said he foresees AI as being similar to previous technological advances that, in theory, killed jobs. Human librarians used to bring him books and articles. Now he gets them online.

Machines replaced weavers. Rooms of typists and calculators have been replaced by email and spreadsheet software. Robots have been taking the place of humans on assembly lines and in warehouses for years. But none of those changes have reduced the amount of work people do. Unemployment has never been so low, and many of us seem busier than ever.

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Capitalism to the rescue

Reminiscent of the prediction by economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren that by now we would be working 15-hour weeks, Tabvuma thinks we probably won't have a chance to put our feet up this time, either.

Some have warned that the capitalist economy will use AI against human workers, but he said that history shows the capitalist free market will guarantee future work because it will keep finding new ways to use human talent and resources. Tabvuma's analysis echoes a statement by tech entrepreneur Jack O'Holleran in an essay earlier this month.

"If AI can do 10 times the work of a coder, the majority of companies won't fire nine of their 10 software engineers," O'Holleran wrote. "They're just going to [expand to] 100 times the amount of output they can produce with their current team of 10."

Robots weld the bodyshell of a Toyota Camry Hybrid car on the assembly line at the Toyota plant in Melbourne August 31, 2009. The pilot production of the first Australian-built hybrid car has been officially launched in Melbourne today. The government has backed the project with $35 million Australian dollars ($29.4 million) to support Toyota's plans to make 10,000 Camry hybrids each year from 2010 at the Altona assembly plant from 2010. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas (AUSTRALIA TRANSPORT ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS)
Robots have been taking jobs on auto assembly lines since the 1960s — in this case welding the bodyshell of a Toyota Camry at a Toyota plant in 2009. (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

Tabvuma said it is in the nature of the capitalist economy — the constant renewal known as "creative destruction" or "churn," motivated by a search for profits — to repeatedly eliminate routinized work and use the resources saved in that process to create new work. AI will not stop that process, he said.

"Over time companies will identify an opportunity, and over time they will start working to make the most of that opportunity," Tabvuma said. 

And the process does not just happen in a corporate setting. Tabvuma talks to his students about the history of art and artisans going back to Greek and Roman times. On the surface, it appears that techniques for creating posters and painting using printing and photography and then computers have been progressively replacing the skills of human artisans.

"It moves away from people and firmly into the realm of technology," Tabvuma said. But that has not eliminated artists, he said: "You look at it right now in history? We have never had more artists in the world."

Human replacement or human helpers

Tabvuma also rejects the idea that a single corporate entity will take hold of artificial intelligence and use it to concentrate wealth and power and dominate humanity. For one thing, while it is now new and expensive, AI will become cheap and widely available to a new generation that understands how to use it. He said it will be hard for any business or sector to corner the market.

"Some of these ideas are advocated by people who believe that the world we live in is a constant and that the businesses we see are always constant, but in capitalist economies, the businesses we interact with right now are not going to exist 10 years from now, or 20 or 30 years from now," Tabvuma said. At some point, companies like Facebook and Amazon and Apple are going to fail, he said.

Bird-watchers with cameras.
Birders in New Brunswick chase their elusive prey. Technology like cameras may have displaced some artists, but there are still plenty of artists and many more photographers. (Submitted by Alain Clavette)

"There will be other companies that come up, and if they're coming up, they will employ people and expand their workforce, improve their technology and gain market share."

And as for the work of writers offering you something you actually want to read? Tabvuma said as well as manual dexterity, humans have another big advantage.

"Think of the interaction you and I are having right now, the fact that you thought of 'How am I going to write this new article? I'm going to reach out to these people and interview them, and then out of that process. I'm going to write this article,'" Tabvuma said.

"And that is not physical dexterity, it's mental dexterity."


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.