“A World Without Work” – a book review

11 June 2020 13:15

“A World Without Work” – a book review

Will jobs for humans follow the same path that jobs for horses did in the early 20th century?

John Maynard Keynes, Wassily Leontief, and Daniel Susskind have two things in common. They are all highly respected economists and they all predict technological unemployment – a term first coined by Keynes in the 1930s. The basic idea is that jobs for humans might follow the same path that jobs for horses did in the early 20th century.

Front cover of the book
“A world without work: technology, automation, and and how we should respond” By Daniel Susskind. Metropolitan Book, 2020, 305 pages

Susskind’s economic credentials are strong: previously an adviser for the British Government, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, and currently a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford where he teaches economics. He is also an often-used speaker and his TEDTalk has been viewed by 1,5 million viewers. In this talk, he documents his eminent communication skills.

Susskind is not a technological determinist: he speculates that if horses had the vote, their fate might have been different. He describes himself instead as a technological realist and thinks that our freedom of movement is constrained. We can’t escape the fact that we will build more and more capable machines. Our challenge is not to try to stop this, but to work out how to go forward with this reality.

Susskind advances his thinking from three myths:

  • The Terminator Myth where technology in the form of robots descend upon workplaces around the world with one task in mind: replace humans. But that is not how it is. Technology complements humans in other tasks, making that work more valuable and more important. Sometimes they complement human beings directly, making them more productive or more efficient at a particular task.
  • The Intelligence Myth holds that machines have to copy the way that human beings think and reason to outperform them. In other words: to figure out what tasks machines could not do, researchers imagined the only way to automate a task was to sit down with a human being, get them to explain to you how it was they performed a task, and then try to capture that explanation in a set of instructions in a software program for a machine to follow. If you include machine learning, you have embedded a learning function. But mimicking humans is not the way forward. We need to build on what makes computers, software, and AI unique: computing power and number crunching. 
  • The Superiority Myth builds on two ideas: that peoples’ job is the only or primary source that provides them with an income, and that the number of jobs is fixed. In a world with less work or even without work, it is unclear how people will get their part of the economic pie. But the fact is that with technology, the economic pie will grow and thus more economic wealth and jobs to share. But technology will also compete for the new jobs being created. In this competition it is not given that humans are superior.

In the book’s concluding chapters, Susskind asks how we all will find meaning in our lives without jobs, and how we will all earn enough to uphold a decent life. He suggests that the answer lies partly in developing a Big State, which will redistribute income and wealth - universal basic income, and nudge us all into behaviors that will give us lives of fulfillment rather than boredom and despair. 

To me the unsolved puzzle is the value of and the incentive to take higher education when it is not put to work. How do people redefine their purpose, how do they continue to develop novel ideas and innovations when there is no apparent use for them?

The book is well-written, clearly by an eminent researcher and teacher who likes to communicate not only with academics. What I particularly enjoyed with the book was that Susskind does not provide any answers to the complex topic but rather provides the reader with a framework to develop his/her own thoughts about technology and work.


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