In the book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari, I read a quote about the impact of artificial intelligence on people's work and employment. That's why I would like to make a comparison about the effects of AI on the world of work.
Are people coachmen – or horses?
In the quote, Harari compares the possible displacement of human labor by artificial intelligence with the fate of horses during the industrial revolution. He suggests that as technology changes, many people will not simply find new roles – as has been the case in the past – but rather may be pushed out of the labor market altogether.
The quote from Harari's book sets a profound and somewhat disturbing tone for the discussion about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the world of work. Harari says (p. 57):
With artificial intelligence, many people may not be threatened with the fate of the coachmen of the 19th century – who now drive taxis – but rather that of the horses of that time, who over time were completely pushed out of the job market.
This analogy between the fate of horses during the Industrial Revolution and the potential impact of AI on the modern workforce provides a possible perspective on how AI could fundamentally change the employment landscape.
Historical perspective and modern parallel
The Industrial Revolution meant that the use of animals such as horses in human work was replaced by machines. This change was not just a simple substitution, but fundamentally changed industries and therefore the economy.
Horses, once essential for transportation and agriculture, became largely unnecessary in these sectors. Harari's quote suggests a similar evolution for human work as AI technologies advance.
The AI revolution: a double-edged sword
AI is not a single technology, but a bundle of advances including machine learning, language processing, robotics and much more. Their application can already be seen in various sectors, from manufacturing to services.
The benefits of AI are obvious: permanent availability, increases in efficiency, reductions in costs and even the creation of new industries and employment categories. However, these benefits come with the potential for displacement of human activities and workspaces.
Artificial Intelligence: Which jobs are at risk?
The first wave of AI's impact will likely be felt in areas that perform routine, predictable tasks. Manufacturing, data entry and basic customer service tasks are already being automated – and the changes will only increase.
But the reach of AI change will expand into more complex areas such as finance, law or healthcare, where algorithms can analyze data faster and often more accurately than humans and therefore draw better conclusions.
The change in work
Just as the Industrial Revolution did not make human work obsolete but changed it, AI will also change the nature of work. There will be a growing demand for roles that AI cannot easily replicate – roles that require creativity, emotional intelligence and solving complex problems by combining different skills and abilities.
However, this change requires significant investments in retraining and upskilling people, which represents a challenge for employers, for employees, but especially for society and the policy makers representing it.
Artificial Intelligence: Economic and Social Impact
Because the potential economic impact of AI-induced unemployment is significant. Lower incomes for a large proportion of the population would affect demand for goods and services and could lead to broader economic challenges. Socially, displacement could exacerbate inequalities and lead to more social unrest – and increase the fatal calls for easy solutions.
Preparing for an AI-powered future
But how should we deal with these changes and impacts and, in particular, counter the impending risks? Of course, I am not so presumptuous as to claim to know the answers to these questions – let alone to be able to describe them in this short column. But I think I can at least say that simple and one-dimensional approaches are not helpful or effective.
Rather, a multidimensional approach is required to reduce the risks. Governments and educational institutions need to focus on reskilling and upskilling programs to prepare workers for AI-enabled roles.
Companies must consider the ethical implications of using AI and weigh efficiency gains against possible social impacts. Finally, there is a need for a broader societal debate about the value of work and how we define productivity and success in an AI-driven world.
Conclusion: Artificial intelligence, the horse of the 21st century?
In summary, Harari's analogy serves as a cautionary reminder that the development of AI, while promising great advances, also represents a fundamental challenge to human work and activity as such and to the approach to work itself.
The transition to an AI-powered economy could be as transformative and revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution and requires thoughtful, proactive measures to ensure that people do not become, figuratively speaking, the “horses” of the 21st century.
The future of work is open, but it will change fundamentally. Preparing for this future is not just a question of economic policy, but a crucial social task.
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