Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, philosopher, author, and lecturer at the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a writer, his best-known works include Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. While he originally specialized in world, medieval, and military history, he is currently focusing on macro-historical questions such as how the lessons of the past can inform our transition to the future.
What Will the Future of Work Be Like?
Harari starts by reminding the audience of one important fact about the job market in 2050—nobody knows what it’s going to be like. The only thing they can be certain of is that it will be completely different from what we know today.
“AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics will change almost every profession,” he says. “Many jobs that people do today will disappear by 2050.” The big question is, what will this do to the job market and human society?
Understandably, people are nervous, but the fear of automation is nothing new. It’s been here since the start of the industrial revolution. In the past, we’ve seen that when old jobs go, new jobs are created, and the same thing is likely to happen in the future, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent—far from it.
Adapting to the Future
The problem with automation has never been the complete disappearance of jobs. It’s been adapting to the new jobs and the job market.
After the industrial revolution, society experienced a number of failed experiments, including Nazism, communism, and modern imperialism, as it attempted to adapt to new technologies.
The technologies driving innovation today, such as AI, robotics, and bioengineering, are even more powerful. “The thing is, we can’t afford any more failed experiments,” he says. “If we don’t get this right this time, the result will not just be another wave of totalitarian and world wars, the result will be the complete annihilation of humankind.”
Predicting the Jobs of the Future
Preparing for the future starts with education in the present.
“Consider a six-year-old girl, who today starts her first grade in school, she will be 34 in 2050,” he says. “What should we teach her today so that she will have the necessary skills for the jobs market and for the world of 2050?”
The answer to that question might not be what we expect. When it comes to automation, society has made assumptions that have been shown to be untrue:
1. We tend to appreciate intellectual skills rather than manual skills. In reality, it is intellectual professions such as doctors which are better suited for automation than more humble professions such as a dishwasher.
“50 years ago chess was often hailed as one of the prime achievements of humankind—nobody thought about dish-washing… but it turned out that a computer can defeat a world chess champion far more easily than a computer can replace a humble waiter who takes away dirty dishes and washes.”
2. Creativity is unique to humans. When it comes to games such as chess, computers have already shown they can be more creative than humans. The same may be true in other fields. It all boils down, he suggests, to what creativity is. If it’s to recognize patterns and break them, AI may be better at creativity than humans because it excels at pattern recognition.
3. AI can’t replace humans in jobs that need emotional intelligence. When it comes to identifying human emotions, computers may be better than humans. Understanding if someone is angry is about processing information from all sorts of things, including body language and expression. At its heart, this is a process of data processing which is one thing that AI excels at.
AI does not have any emotions of its own, but it can learn to recognize these patterns in human beings. Computers may outperform people in recognizing human emotions because they don’t have any emotions of their own.
Harari paints a picture of a world in which a smart home may detect your mood when you get home. If you’re stressed, it could dim the lights for a more soothing atmosphere or play uplifting music.
“We may become so accustomed to these attentive machines that understand exactly how we feel that we may become intolerant of all these human beings who do not understand how we feel,” he warns.
A Question of Consciousness
As computers become more intelligent, some people are naturally raising the question of consciousness. On this, he is skeptical.
“We shouldn’t confuse intelligence with consciousness,” he says. “Contrary to what we see in science fiction films, there is no reason to think that as computers gain intelligence they will gain consciousness.”
Consciousness is the ability to feel emotions. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Over the past half-century, we have seen a dramatic increase in computer intelligence. At the same time, we’ve seen precisely zero change in computer consciousness.
There might be several different roads leading to super-intelligence, and only some of the roads lead to consciousness.
What Humans Want
The jobs which will be done by computers will depend on what humans want them to do.
- Do they want them to be more intelligent than us? If that’s the case, is it enough for computers to gain intelligence to take on certain tasks – such as driverless cars?
- Do we want empathy, relationships or friendships? If so, that’s not possible to automate. What we want is not someone who can solve problems for us, but someone who can feel things.
Some roles depend on how we perceive them. Take weddings, for example. On a technical level, the job of a priest can be automated much easier than anything else. All that’s needed is to repeat the text and print out a certificate. So why, he asks, do we think drivers should be worried, but priests are safe?
Making the Transition
Coping with the future of work, Harari believes, will be difficult in many ways:
- Psychology: It’s stressful to reinvent yourself. If you’re a truck driver who has been replaced by a computer, how do you reinvent yourself as a yoga teacher or a designer, or any other job which has not been automated?
- Evolution: Even if you can adjust, it might not be a long-term solution because the job market will continue to change. Automation is not a one-off event. It will be a ‘cascade of ever bigger disruption’.
“We’ll have some big changes by 2025, even bigger changes by 2035 and an even bigger revolution in 2045. Old jobs will disappear, new jobs will emerge but the new jobs too will quickly change and vanish. People will have to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once but again and again throughout their lives and this will create immense psychological pressure.”
Things may get so bad that the state will have to step in and provide financial or psychological support. There may have to be a National Psychological Service.
A New Model of Work
The digital revolution needs a new model of work. For thousands of years, the model was linear. First, you learn, then you work.
This model is now becoming irrelevant. People can’t expect to retain the same job or even the same profession all their life. People must continually relearn skills and new professions.
For example, as more and more activities move online, people in their sixties will need to adapt. With virtual reality (VR), they may even need to learn how to walk and talk again in this new VR world. As more jobs move into VR, those who can’t learn these skills will be left behind.
Unlearning and Relearning
The 21st century will need new skills and new attitudes:
- Unlearning: In order to stay relevant, people will need the ability to unlearn previous skills and approaches.
- Relearning: The most important skill of the 21st century, he believes, will not be specific skills such as learning code, but the ability to master new skills to move from one profession to another throughout our lives.
- Processing information: We will also need to learn how to look for new information and how to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable information. All this will require a lot of mental flexibility.
The big question is: do we have what it takes to survive in the 21st century?
To thrive in this new world, Harari argues that we will have to unleash the untapped potential of humankind. For some, this would mean technologies such as genetic or bioengineering to extend human capacity, but this, he suggests, could be dangerous.
Instead, he believes history has shown us the vast untapped potential of humankind. One of the greatest forces of this kind was feminism which unlocked the potential of half the human race, which had thus far been neglected.
“I said earlier that AI is nowhere near its full potential–that’s also true for human beings, we are nowhere near our full potential,” he concludes. “For every euro and minute that we spend developing AI, we should spend at least a euro and a minute on exploring and developing our own minds.”