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A brave new workless world
by Mike Jakeman
A World without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond,
by Daniel Susskind, Henry Holt, 2020
ow would you feel if you no longer had to work? Ecstatic? Empty?
Relieved? Anxious? All of the above? Economists and other
thinkers have long debated the function of work in shaping human
identity. Sigmund Freud considered work “indispensable,” and
Adam Smith thought it “toil and trouble.”
Daniel Susskind, an Oxford professor and former government advisor,
believes that work “is so entrenched in our psyches that there is often an instructive
resistance to contemplating a world with less of it, and an inability to articulate
anything substantial when we actually do.” His argument in A World without
Work, a useful and farsighted book on the subject, is threefold: that within
our lifetime, automation will result in insufficient work to go around; that this
structural technological unemployment, if ignored, would make our already
u nfa ir world va st ly more u nequa l ; a nd t hat to pre vent t his outcome, government s’
approach to labor policy needs to be entirely rethought.
Of these three strands, Susskind’s first is his most convincing. To be sure,
he acknowledges, workers have regularly panicked unnecessarily about being
replaced by machines. But this time, he argues, the threat is real. His best evidence
of the frightening pace at which AI is developing comes through attempts to
build robots to play chess and Go. For years, scientists followed an approach of
trying to copy human thought and behavior. This proved impossible to replicate,
and by the late 1980s, AI appeared to have hit a wall.
Then, in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov at
chess. It was a milestone because the machine did not think like Kasparov.
Instead, it used what Susskind calls “brute-force processing power” to calculate
more moves further ahead than its human opponent. In 2016, a robot called
AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, the best human player in the world, at Go, in part by
making a move that went against perceived human wisdom. A year later, the