French economist and essayist Nicolas Bouzou has a reputation for plain speaking and for swimming against the prevailing currents in rumour and public opinion. Unsurprisingly, the Managing Partner of the Asterés consultancy went straight to the point in his talk at the USI event in Paris on 20 June, giving us his vision of European society in the year 2020, a society in which “work will still form the backbone.” Nevertheless, the ongoing revolution in NBIC technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, IT and cognitive sciences – is bringing about considerable changes in the world of work, which one might reasonably claim are without precedent in human history, if only because of the vertiginous speed at which the world is now being transformed. A recent opinion survey by Odexa revealed that while most French people favour the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics in our society, and 76% of those polled said they would love to see France among the leading countries in the AI field, two thirds of the respondents nevertheless think that AI will destroy more jobs than it will be able to create. This anxiety over the threat of massive ‘technological unemployment’ is mirrored in the current public debate on a possible basic universal income that would supposedly keep people in idleness while robots did all the work. So, going forward, will human society be a society of work or a society of leisure and idleness?
The end of work: a reflex with a long history
A HUMAN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Nicolas Bouzou made a brief historical detour in order to show that the fear of losing one’s job is a very old one that returns in successive waves whenever economic, social and technical changes are underway. “Fear of the ‘end of work’ is as old as work itself. Ever since work has had a value, people have been worried about losing it,” he reminded the USI audience. From century to century and from society to society, this anxiety has shaken the positions of rulers from Roman Emperor Vespasian to France’s queen consort Marie-Antoinette in the 18th century. It saw a massive upsurge during the Industrial Revolution and made a comeback during the 20th century with the crisis brought on by the crash of 1929. At that time, the mayor of Palo Alto, California went so far as to say in a letter to President Hoover that this was not a stock market crisis but that industrial technology was a “Frankenstein monster that threatens to devour our civilization.” Much more recently, Jeremy Rifkin’s End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era demonstrated the traction that this idea has. However, the imminent end of work announced in this 1995 publication has not yet come to pass, 22 years down the road. In fact, the myth of the death of work is often the symptom of social upheavals that arise during periods of rapid technical progress.
From job destruction to job creation
"Some jobs will be destroyed, there’s no question about that. The real question is whether we’ll be able to create more jobs. Keynes was already raising this question back in 1930."
The economist-consultant was quite clear on this point: technology will destroy some jobs, just as the Industrial Revolution killed off trades such as knife-grinders, blacksmiths and tanners. However, counterbalancing this phenomenon will be an increase in other needs, other areas of demand. "There may be some technological unemployment but human needs are infinite. Such technological unemployment will essentially be transitional because demand will drive employment back up,” insisted Bouzou, arguing that there will be a chain effect, a virtuous circle in which prices will fall, leading to a rise in demand and a corresponding rise in wages. Referring to the Spillover Theory formulated by French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy, he explained how job destruction is matched by a rise in purchasing power and the creation of other wealth that will not necessarily be apparent at the time. According to this theory, for every high-value-added job created, five new jobs will appear around it through the ‘spillover’ effect.
In addition, Nicolas Bouzou made an effort to counter alarmist arguments about mass unemployment. The worldwide unemployment rate currently stands at just 6% and there have never been so many jobs in existence as in the 21st century. siècle. Nor does he see any tangible link between the unemployment rate and tech innovation. For instance, South Korea, which has pumped massive investment into AI and robotics, has an unemployment rate as low as 4%. Conversely, Portugal, which has seen unemployment soaring in recent years, is not known as a pioneer in the NBIC field. The French economist-essayist told the audience that technology is the perfect scapegoat for politicians and the media but warned them against "foisting the blame for poor decisions by politicians and government on to technology."
Work as a human trait
"Work is our chief means of involvement in the world" Nicolas Bouzou
While the automation of work tasks and the introduction of AI into company processes and elsewhere may well destroy certain types of jobs, there is absolutely no indication that human work is about to disappear altogether, leaving in its place a society of idlers.
First and foremost, we can say that AI is currently being planned and developed to supplement human activity, not in opposition to it. Human beings retain their uniquely human qualities, which they can apply in the world of work, argues Bouzou. This includes being able to take decisions in a changing environment. "An autonomous vehicle wouldn’t be able to pass the Turing test. If you ask an autonomous car to come over and have a last drink, it won’t reply to you,” he pointed out.
As L’Atelier argued in a recent article, human beings are superior to machines on the artistic front. Bouzou stressed: "For sure, there are creative AIs, but art isn’t just about beauty, it’s about beauty and values embodied in a sensitive work. Values are rooted in art," he said, drawing on GWF Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. Not least, Man is characterised by his need for social interaction. A society where all work is done by robots, as the Japanese hotel Henn Na in Nagasaki is trying to do, is not necessarily the mark of success. Lamented Bouzou: "I set foot inside the entirely robotised hotel in Nagasaki and there’s an incredibly sad feeling to the place. We need human interaction."
One might argue that Nicolas Bouzou’s assumptions are only valid as long as artificial intelligence has taken only a weak hold. But even if AI were to take a stronger grip in the future, what is to prevent human beings from specialising in the things they are most gifted at? "Mozart couldn’t have been both a brilliant musician and a sports star," argued Nicolas Bouzou, drawing on the Comparative Advantage theory of David Ricardo to make the point that even if everyone were good at everything, greater specialisation could still lead to improvements in both economic and human terms.
To sum up Nicolas Bouzou’s arguments, work is precisely what makes people human, which is why if work were to simply disappear, Man would become that little bit less human. A human being who does not work is a sad creature. "Work is our chief means of involvement in the world. The tasks we perform give us a metaphysical freedom," he argued. His final reference was to Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic, in which the German Idealist philosopher concludes that a slave gains in humanity through the work s/he performs, while the master is demeaned and degraded through idleness. For all these reasons, our society should not simply relegate work to the shelf where we keep our collective memories and move towards a society ruled by leisure and idleness. Not least, we need to restore meaning to work for those who have lost the sense of what it means. " Yes,” Nicolas Bouzou told the USI audience, “the cleaning lady at SpaceX is also helping to conquer Mars."