Explora Articles It is the end of work as we know it (and I feel fine)


July 10, 2024 9 min

It is the end of work as we know it (and I feel fine)

La posible evolución de las tecnologías de inteligencia artificial y su impacto en el empleo plantea importantes preguntas y debates sobre el futuro que deseamos como sociedad.

Santiago García

A content by Santiago García


“I am 25. These next three years might be the last few years that I work. I am not ill, nor am I becoming a stay-at-home mom, nor have I been so financially fortunate to be on the brink of voluntary retirement. I stand at the edge of a technological development that seems likely, should it arrive, to end employment as I know it.”

These words, with which Avital Balwit begins her article “My Last Five Years of Work,” set the tone for one of the most stimulating texts I have read in recent months. Published in Palladium, a non-partisan magazine that explores the future of governance and society, Balwit’s article offers a personal reflection on a future dominated by artificial general intelligence (AGI) from her privileged position as Chief of Staff to Dario Amodei, CEO of Anthropic, one of the main contenders in the race towards this new technological frontier.

In this article, I will focus on five ideas that I have extracted from Balwit’s text that I believe can be extremely useful for any business leader, not only as a basis for strategic reflection and thinking but also to provoke deep conversations in their organizations about the possible ramifications of this technological change.

1 ) “The economically and politically relevant comparison on most tasks is not whether the language model is better than the best human, it is whether they are better than the human who would otherwise do that task.”

Many business leaders tend to focus on the limitations of AI rather than recognizing the speed at which the capabilities of this new technology are increasing. They seem to forget that the impact of AI does not lie in its ability to surpass the greatest human achievements but in its ability to outperform the average worker in their daily tasks. Most jobs do not require extraordinary geniuses but rather consistent and reliable performance at a competent level. When AI reaches or exceeds this level, it becomes a formidable competitor to human labor.

If AI can perform a wide variety of tasks more efficiently and cost-effectively than the average worker, businesses will inevitably lean towards automation, especially in roles where human effort is already being replaced by the precision and speed of machines and algorithms. This trend will force us to rethink our understanding of human skills and the value we place on them.

Traditionally, we have valued human work for its unique characteristics that make it different, even in routine tasks. However, if AI can replicate or improve these tasks, we will need to reconsider which human skills we value and how people can remain relevant in an AI-driven economy. This transition may require a shift in focus towards certain uniquely human traits that, at least for now, AI struggles to replicate, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, or critical thinking.

But Balwit’s statement also points to a broader political and economic challenge. As AI begins to take over the tasks of average workers, decisions about where and how to implement these technologies cannot be left solely to market forces. Governments, business leaders, workers, and other stakeholders need to anticipate the social impact of a potential scenario of widespread automation. The issue is not merely technological but deeply social: How do we support those displaced by AI? What policies can mitigate the negative effects of this transition? How do we ensure that the benefits of AI are widely shared rather than concentrated in the hands of a few?

2 ) “It seems that shame plays a role in making people unhappy after unemployment, which implies that they might be happier in full automation-induced unemployment, since it would be near-universal and not signify any personal failing.”

There is a shared belief that work, in addition to providing economic stability, offers social connection, status, and a sense of purpose. Various studies show that without work, people often suffer from sadness, fear, worse health, and an increase in mental disorders, but these effects are influenced by context.

For example, shame significantly contributes to the distress experienced during unemployment and often stems from social norms that equate work with personal value and success. When people lose their jobs, they may feel they have personally failed, which exacerbates their anxiety and unhappiness. However, studies on factory closures and layoffs during the pandemic indicate that when unemployment is widespread and not attributed to individual failures, the associated shame decreases, which could alleviate the psychological burden.

Balwit suggests the hypothesis that if automation becomes so prevalent that most people are unemployed and feel that their unemployment is not the result of personal failure but broader economic and technological changes, the traditional stigma associated with unemployment could dissipate. In such a scenario, where everyone is in the same situation, the sense of personal failure would likely be replaced by a collective experience. This could lead to a significant shift in how society views work and unemployment, fostering a more compassionate and understanding environment.

This idea invites us to reexamine our cultural narratives about work. Currently, work is often seen as a cornerstone of identity and personal value. However, if total automation renders traditional employment obsolete, society might need to redefine success and value beyond work. This could lead to a more holistic understanding of human potential, where value is derived from a broader range of activities and contributions, such as creativity, community involvement, and personal development.

Although this shift towards automation-induced unemployment raises other important questions. How will people find meaning and purpose without traditional work structures? While it is crucial to eliminate the shame associated with unemployment, it is also essential to ensure that individuals have opportunities to engage in meaningful activities. Society will need to create new paths for people to feel valued and fulfilled, whether through volunteer work, creative activities, lifelong learning, or other forms of personal and social engagement.

3 ) “How people fare psychologically with their post-AGI unemployment will depend heavily on how they use their time, not how much of it there is.”

Historical perspectives on working hours suggest that working less could be beneficial if managed well. For example, technological advances have reduced the burden of domestic work, and AI could further automate unpleasant tasks, freeing up time for more meaningful activities such as childcare or teaching, which involve personal relationships and are less likely to be fully automated.

Balwit also draws parallels with past aristocrats, who lived largely unemployed lives filled with social activities, hobbies, and intellectual pursuits. This historical example suggests that a society where material needs are met without the need to work could thrive, if people find meaningful ways to spend their time.

Technological advances could lead to a renaissance of personal and community life, where individuals have the freedom to pursue passions, hobbies, and social connections that bring them joy and satisfaction. Balwit’s examples—exercising, spending time with children, socializing with friends—are activities that promote physical health, emotional well-being, and social bonds, are inherently rewarding, and provide a sense of achievement and connection, which are crucial for psychological health.

However, the success of the transition to such a society depends on several factors. Firstly, there must be a cultural shift in how we perceive and value time outside of work. Currently, much of our identity and self-esteem are tied to our professional roles and achievements. Adopting a lifestyle where value derives from non-work-related activities requires a redefinition of what we understand as success. For example, society must learn to honor and appreciate contributions made outside traditional employment, whether through caregiving, community service, artistic activities, or personal growth.

Additionally, Balwit’s point highlights the importance of active engagement and intentional use of time. Simply having more free time does not automatically lead to well-being. Passive activities, such as excessive screen time or isolation, can result in negative psychological outcomes. Therefore, it is essential to promote and facilitate active and engaged lifestyles. This could involve promoting physical fitness, lifelong learning, community participation, and creative expression.

Finally, it is crucial that people have access to the resources that enable fulfilling activities. Today, not everyone has equal access to opportunities for exercise, education, social interaction, or creative activities. In a future without employment, it will be essential to consider policies and infrastructures that ensure everyone has the means to participate in these activities.

4 ) “A renowned AI researcher once told me that he is practicing for post-AGI by taking up activities that he is not particularly good at: jiu-jitsu, surfing, and so on, and savoring the doing even without excellence.”

Enjoying activities without the pressure to excel is crucial for a future where AGI might surpass human capabilities in many fields. This challenges the common notion that our value is tied to our competence or productivity. Instead, it invites us to find satisfaction and meaning in the process of doing rather than in the outcome. Engaging in activities simply for the pleasure they bring can cultivate a deeper sense of satisfaction and well-being.

The idea underscores the importance of adopting a beginner’s mindset, characterized by curiosity, openness, and a willingness to learn. This mindset is essential for adapting to a world where traditional metrics of skill and achievement may no longer apply. By engaging in activities outside their comfort zone, people can develop resilience, adaptability, and a broader perspective on what constitutes a fulfilling life.

Valuing experience over results can also mitigate the social pressure to constantly excel and compete. In a post-AGI world, where machines could handle most tasks more efficiently, human experience could focus on exploration, creativity, and personal satisfaction.

Furthermore, this perspective encourages us to redefine leisure and work. In a society where work is no longer a necessity, leisure activities could acquire new meaning. They could become avenues for self-expression, community building, and continuous learning. By valuing activities for the joy they bring, we can create a culture that celebrates diverse forms of engagement and personal fulfillment.

This approach can also foster a more inclusive and compassionate society. When excellence is no longer the primary goal, there is more room for everyone to participate and contribute uniquely. This inclusiveness can strengthen social bonds and create a sense of shared humanity, where people come together to enjoy activities without the pressure of competition.

Finally, this mindset can prepare us for the ethical and existential questions posed by AGI. If machines can surpass us in many areas, what does it mean to be human? By focusing on the joy of the journey rather than the destination, we can find meaning and purpose beyond traditional roles and achievements, in a new approach that emphasizes the inherently human capacity for wonder, creativity, and connection.

5 ) “I believe that if we really think these systems will be able to replace us, there is no reason to believe they will not also be able to help us in our search for meaning.”

That is, if AI can reach a level of sophistication that allows it to replace humans in many tasks, it should possess a deep understanding of those tasks and their contexts. This understanding could be redirected towards enhancing human life beyond merely completing tasks. Therefore, instead of seeing AI solely as a competitor or replacement, we should also appreciate its potential to enrich our human experience, especially in areas where we seek meaning and deep fulfillment.

Balwit’s words invite us to reflect on how we might leverage AI to enhance our search for meaning. For example, AI could assist in personal development by offering personalized learning experiences, helping people explore new interests and skills. It could also provide insights into our behaviors and preferences, guiding us towards activities and pursuits that align with our values and passions. In this way, AI could act as a catalyst for self-discovery and personal growth.

Moreover, AI’s potential to aid in our search for meaning extends to the realms of creativity and innovation. By collaborating with AI, humans can push the boundaries of what is possible in art, science, and technology. AI can help us explore new creative landscapes, discover previously invisible patterns and connections, and inspire new forms of expression.

Similarly, AI can facilitate deeper human connections and help us meet our intrinsic need for social interaction and belonging. For example, it can help build communities of like-minded individuals or even those with differing viewpoints, where people can share experiences and maintain meaningful and enriching relationships.

Balwit’s optimistic vision also suggests that AI could help address some of the existential questions that have long concerned humanity. With its ability to analyze vast amounts of data and synthesize knowledge from various fields, AI could offer new perspectives on philosophical and ethical issues, helping us navigate the complexities of human existence. In this sense, AI could be a companion in our intellectual and spiritual journeys, providing insights and reflections that deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

In any case, for AI to truly assist in our search for meaning, we must be very careful in how we design and implement it. AI systems must respect human autonomy, privacy, and dignity. This will require a collaborative effort between technologists, ethicists, business leaders, policymakers, and society at large to ensure that the AI solutions we create are aligned with our values and aspirations.


Foto de Alex Bertha en Unsplash

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