OPINION | Investors in commercial real estate are contemplating a 40 per cent reduction in the occupancy rates of major law and accounting firms.

The cause of this anticipated decline is the expected replacement of people by ‘expert systems’ that are expected to cost less and do a better job – at least when the tasks are based on the application of analytical skills.

The same is true for other professions. IBM’s Watson is already outperforming human doctors in the diagnosis of some forms of cancer.

I mention this because discussions of the relationship between technology and work are all too often based on the assumption that predicted job losses will be greatest amongst the unskilled and semi-skilled workforce. In fact, the implications for employment are going to be far more widespread. Indeed, any kind of rote activity or job based on pattern recognition, analysis of data, etc., is likely to fall into the province of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Given this, we might expect a hollowing out of many current workplaces – not least financial institutions – with considerable retrenchments as people are replaced by machines that will be more efficient and more effective.

At the same time, we should see increased employment in areas of work best undertaken by humans. For example, a machine may be better at diagnosing a disease; however, it is unlikely to offer much comfort when conveying the bad news to a patient. In those circumstances, what we need is the care and concern of a human being who can genuinely empathise with our predicament – who can literally reach out to hold our hand.

Employment opportunities will also grow in fields of endeavour that depend on creativity or where there is a premium to be paid for goods and services that are uniquely human in their provenance. We see this already in the value placed on the products of artisan makers of bread, beer and clothes. Products mass produced by machines will be cheap and readily available. However, I think there will also be a ready market for goods and services that bear the distinctive mark of another human being.

I doubt, however, that the volume of new jobs will match those lost. Therefore, we will need to ask and answer some fundamental questions about the value of different types of work – and perhaps sever the connection between work and employment.

Four questions about the nature of work will need to be answered in the future:

  1. How will society ensure that each human has an adequate income?
  2. How will society value work that can be done only by humans vs. the work of machines?
  3. Will society reserve certain types of work for humans alone – even if machines could be more efficient and effective at it?
  4. Will society (and individuals) find meaning and purpose in activities beyond formal employment – for example, through the quality of their citizenship?

Of these questions, the most important are probably the first and last. There are plenty of examples from human history in which people have lived rich and meaningful lives without being employed. This has been true in societies as diverse as those of the Indigenous peoples of Australia and ancient Athens, Thebes and Corinth.

The challenge is to develop an economy that generates and then distributes sufficient wealth to fund a good quality of life for all. Any such system will have to harness the productive value created by machines and ensure that it supports a form of life that may ultimately return to some of the simple, community forms of yesteryear – except this time resting on a technologically sophisticated foundation supported by artificial intelligence and robotics.

How the institutions of banking and finance will adjust to this new reality is one of the great strategic questions facing the industry.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of The Ethics Centre. At The Banking and Finance Ethics Conference in Sydney on June 8, 2017, Longstaff will participate in a panel on the topic “Data and Artificial Intelligence: What they mean for consumers and jobs”. For more information or to register for the event, CLICK HERE

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