Can AI Give Us The Work Life We Want?

There is a scene in Wall-E that paints — in glorious high-definition — what life might look like if robots took our jobs.

It is a vision that’s equal parts repulsive and enticing. Dissolving into levitating armchairs with screens, men — little more than fatty blobs — are whisked around on self-driving routes while machines cook, deliver drinks, brush teeth, give massages, teach, cut hair, and clean. There is no labour: people game, watch shows, and video chat all day.

Is it a dystopia? Perhaps not in the late aughts, when Pixar’s acclaimed flick debuted. But big recent strides in self-driving, language models, and generative art make this apocalyptic future look close.

Depending on who you ask, AI will make obsolete anywhere from 85 million (according to the World Economic Forum) to 800 million jobs (according to a 2017 McKinsey Institute report)

In Singapore, Oxford Economics reckons half a million will be affected, with the culling concluding no later than 2028.

Some roles are in more trouble than others, but few will emerge entirely unscathed. Influential firms such as Goldman Sachs and ChatGPT maker OpenAI are estimating that up to 50 per cent of the tasks that comprise any job are automatable — meaning no one, not even singers, plumbers or chief executives, will ever work the same again.

Related: Why robotics will makes our lives more productive & meaningful?

Dream jobs?

Despite these figures, AI is not some monstrous job-eater. It’s simply the latest result of humanity’s longstanding distaste for boredom.

Whether the watermills of millennia past or today’s electromechanics, plentiful evidence points to humanity’s long history of creating apparatus to undertake repetitive work, says Steven Miller, professor emeritus of information systems at Singapore Management University.

“Augmentation, or combining the human and the supertool, can help us improve efficiency and do new types of work that lead to innovation,” he says.

“We need to use the productivity-enhancing aspects of this new generation of AI tools to recycle freed-up human capacity within an organisation in order to put more time into exploration, experimentation, and iteration.”

Miller, co-author of the 2022 book Working with AI, which examines case studies of people and machines in exemplary tandem, previously said that leaders who use AI in a “lazy way” — to simply replace headcount — will see business plateau, while competitors who harness its innovative potential will get ahead. 

“Compared to automation, which only works well under certain types of conditions, using AI to complement the worker is more widely applicable and flexible, and in this sense, more practical and economical,” he adds. “The challenge then is to use AI to produce new types of work.”

Perhaps the crux is how benevolent employers are. Can they be counted on to wield AI ethically?

What exactly this looks like is up for interpretation. Could it mean we get to craft dream jobs comprising interesting tasks we love best, kick away the menial bits, and score better work-life balance to boot?

Think of how a sweeper might trade in his broom to plot the best path for a cleaning bot, or a video creator might farm out editing to AI so as to lavish time on sexier plotlines.

“By taking on the repetitive and mundane tasks that can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction, AI allows workers to focus on the aspects of their jobs that are more interesting, engaging, and fulfilling,” AI chatbot ChatGPT explained when asked how its kind might create ideal jobs.

Judging by the platform’s one billion users a month, help is very welcome in drafting emails, doing research, troubleshooting code, and delegating everything tedious — from marketing to accounting, design, content creation, and customer service.

Can AI Give Us The Work Life We Want?

Wielding AI ethically

‘Can robots remove the drudgery of daily living?’ is one of the pleasantly existential questions raised in Artificial Intelligence Ethics and Governance Body of Knowledge, a compilation of perspectives from local researchers and officials on ethical issues in AI. 

Surveys by Salesforce and Outsystems have shown automation improves work-life balance significantly. So, why don’t most of us look forward to a sweeter time at work? 

Perhaps the crux is how benevolent employers are. Can they be counted on to wield AI ethically?

“If the organisation experiences increased efficiency and productivity from the transformation effort, but the employees face stagnating wages, spikes in workload, or unreasonable key performance indicators, a disconnect will arise… [on the] necessity of change transformation,” warns a panel of government bodies and institutions in the publication A Guide to Job Redesign in the Age of AI

“Historically, people have shown greater resistance to new technologies if they perceive greater risks to themselves while the benefits accrue to only a few.”

Ultimately, what makes man irreplaceable is his decision making, creativity, intuition, and emotional intelligence.

Its other advice: recognise the value of retaining human experience. For example, pilots still need to clock flights to avoid over-reliance on autopilot and hone their judgement to intervene decisively if the tech fails.

Ultimately, what makes man irreplaceable is his decision making, creativity, intuition, and emotional intelligence. Concentrating job scopes on “human-exclusive” skills tantalisingly promises only the most meaningful, effective use of people’s time.

Somewhat ironically, however, mastering these skills begins precisely with practising the basics that form the foundation of expertise.

Another question Guide asks is how do new lawyers, who begin their work lives relying on AI to spit out simple contracts, tackle complex ones without the understanding that comes from years of drafting experience?

Its answer: organisations need to explore new ways of training employees.

Braving an AI future

Yes, the balance between automation and the need for human effort will be tricky for companies to get right. And yes, it is possible to automate fulfilment if businesses fail to preserve tasks staff value most.

Yet with advancements, the possibility of better jobs feels closer than it ever has because anyone, from entrepreneurs to the average worker bee, can order around a team of AI subordinates that act as career partners, personal assistants, and support minions. Nothing is stopping anyone from acting on lists such as ‘Top 10 AI Tools to 10X Productivity’ now circulating on LinkedIn.

“The outcomes of technological change are not preordained,” writes Chan Heng Chee, a member of the Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data, in Guide’s foreword. “They will be mediated by the decisions we make.”

Despite a global undercurrent of uncertainty, it’s worth giving less fear a try — because full automation, while possible, was never the outcome man sought. Even Wall-E ends with humanity resuming healthy levels of labour — albeit with the help of bots.

What of us? It may be too much for some to see automation as friendly, but it doesn’t hurt to wonder how work could change, using the same sense of wild optimism we did with the advent of the Internet. The 2000s came and went, and cars still don’t fly, but with where AI is going, they soon might. So could our careers.