Economically, are technological advances our friend, enemy, or frenemy?

Economically, are technological advances our friend, enemy, or frenemy?

With 'technological unemployment' a serious concern, it is vital to ensure adequate living condition for all

In 1930, famed economist and philosopher John Maynard Keynes wrote that by the time of his “grandchildren’s generation”, people in the developed world would be working no more than 15 hours a week.

Keynes predicted that rapid advances in technology would lead to high levels of productivity and efficiency. Hence, the amount of human labour required to produce the necessary goods and services would be greatly reduced.

He envisioned a world in which humans, instead of being occupied with dreary work, would seek fulfilment through exploring the arts and pursuing creative endeavours. Keynes was optimistic about the future, but the prospect of advanced technology worried him. He was concerned that this would lead to what he called “technological unemployment”.

Such concerns have been raised for centuries. For example, the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century and lasted for about 80 years, led to fears about mass joblessness and poverty.

Protest about working hours turned chaotic and pushed police to use force

Advances in technology have so far increased human productivity and standards of living without causing a steep drop in the unemployment rate. On the contrary, technology has enabled the economy to create greater opportunities for employment.But many economists believe this effect may no longer continue, thanks to the current wave of technological progress.

In the near future, artificial intelligence, or machines, will have the intellectual and creative ability once considered the sole domain of humans.

It is thought that a range of white-collar careers, including those in economics, medicine and law, could be in danger. Jobs requiring human interaction will be more resistant to a takeover by robots though. This is because machines are still a long way from “copying” our emotions.

Keynes’ prophecy may be fulfilled, albeit a little late, and a large number of people could indeed find themselves working much less. It is likely that the quality of life will rise with better technology, but job losses may also herald an era of unprecedented inequality. So the technological revolution will mostly benefit the rich.

This issue has been extensively covered recently, with a number of policies proposed to ensure adequate living conditions for all. Among the measures are a guaranteed minimum income, which was discussed in an earlier article.

How a guaranteed minimum income would be implemented in Hong Kong

A well-designed policy, although difficult to implement, should help maintain a satisfactory standard of living for those who find themselves out of work due to technology. More worrying are the studies which find that employment is a crucial part of human fulfilment.

A study led by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly found that, although most people associate the workplace with negative feelings, they are “considerably more miserable” when not working at all.

Keynes and many others envision a society in which entrepreneurship and creativity will bloom, and people will have more time to spend with their family and friends.

Unfortunately, current evidence suggests that those without jobs tend to spend their time on unproductive and unfulfilling activities such as watching TV and sleeping, instead of socialising or serving the community.

Only in hindsight will we be able to establish the effect of artificial intelligence on our society. Until then, we would do well to plan for the future, and make sure that the wealth is evenly spread among the population.

We will also need to consider, as a society, how to find fulfilment in a world without work.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Life in a world without work


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