Just because a bot could do your job cheaper doesn’t mean it should

With the inexorable rise of AI threatening to reduce humanity to the roll of trussed-up gimps, everyone appears to have stopped what they were doing to wonder how long it will be before their job is taken over by a machine.

As the world collapses in on itself, it is at least somewhat settling to know that those creaming most from the current set-up – the bankers, hedge fund managers, and corporate dragons – may well be the first to be replaced by faceless bots.

In contrast, the carers, flower wavers and creative types – who earn comparatively little but add a human accompaniment to the background thrum of digital domination – might feel better insulated against the march of self-inflicted technological Armageddon.

It’s easier to see how an algorithm might be created to prevent another global economic meltdown, for example, than to wipe the bottom of an elderly resident in a care home or write a new series of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Until now the foundation stones of the modern global economy – specialist knowledge of the esoteric workings of financial speculation – have been safeguarded by a handful of privileged individuals.

If generating added value to investments can be done better and, more frequently, by artificial intelligence, then the CEOs, CIOs and COOs of global financial corporations might well go the same way as the management of British Leyland, Betamax videotapes and the Sinclair C5.

Of course, it’s not all good news. The chances are that Piers Morgan will never be replaced by a line of code, and the same kind of value calculus is likely to be applied to the rest of us – no matter how senior or lowly our position.

We’ve been here before and many of the industries where jobs previously done by humans became mechanised – motor manufacturing, newspaper printing, food processing – continue to bear the scars.

This feels different however, not least because many of the jobs at risk of being usurped involve intellectual production.

This week it was reported that a successful author had discovered the existence of pirated books, being sold in her name, that had been conceived and written entirely by AI. Machine learning had been used to replicate the style and substance of previous books written by Jane Friedman.

Alongside the work of the number crunchers – calculating whether our job can be done cheaper and more effectively by a robot – should also be a debate about the nature of value of employment.

Should we continue to subscribe to the paradigm where the value of work is solely based on its profitability for employers, or should we embrace a more comprehensive approach that takes into account broader contributions to happiness, well-being, knowledge development, and essential services?

Historically, the measure of work’s value has often been intrinsically tied to its profitability. The financial bottom line has been the paramount indicator of success, particularly in corporate and business contexts. This approach, however, paints an incomplete picture of the true worth of work. While profitability is undoubtedly a crucial factor, it overlooks the intangible but equally significant contributions that individuals make within their workplaces and communities.

Shifting towards a holistic approach to measuring the value of work acknowledges the multi-dimensional impact that individuals can have. This perspective embraces the idea that work is not merely a means of generating revenue but also an avenue through which people contribute to the well-being of their colleagues, the company, and society at large.

Consider the example of a mentor within an organization. This individual might not directly bring in substantial profits, but their guidance and support can lead to increased job satisfaction, skill development, and a positive work environment. These elements, though not directly tied to profitability, can profoundly influence overall success and productivity.

One of the most compelling arguments for a holistic approach to measuring the value of work is the recognition that many roles contribute significantly to the happiness and well-being of others.

Take the case of a school counsellor. While their impact might not be easily quantified in financial terms, their guidance and support for students can have a profound effect on their mental and emotional development. The value created through improved well-being and future success extends far beyond immediate financial gain.

Work is not only about immediate profitability but also about the long-term growth of knowledge and innovation.

Researchers, scientists, and educators are prime examples of individuals who might not generate immediate financial gains but play a pivotal role in advancing human understanding and technological progress.

Their work sets the stage for future breakthroughs and improvements that can lead to significant financial gains down the line. Consider the researchers working on groundbreaking medical treatments or sustainable energy solutions. Their value might not be immediately apparent in profits, but their contributions have the potential to reshape industries and societies.

Certain roles and services are indispensable, even if their direct financial impact is challenging to quantify. Public servants like firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and social workers provide essential services that safeguard the well-being of communities. While these roles might not generate substantial profits for employers, their absence would result in immeasurable societal costs. Their value lies in preventing crises and ensuring the smooth functioning of society, which can’t be adequately captured through traditional profitability metrics.

It’s important to balance measuring financial contributions and recognising broader impacts. While profitability is a crucial factor, a myopic focus on it neglects the complex web of interconnections that underlie a thriving work environment and society.

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