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Why AI Will Not Abolish Work

Work will not disappear because of the introduction of artificial intelligence. But without new ways of fairly distributing paid and unpaid work, AI and other new technologies could bring about a highly divided world.

VIENNA – The diffusion of artificial intelligence (AI) across the economy has raised the possibility – and for many, the fear – that machines will eventually replace human work. They will not only perform an ever-larger share of mechanical operations, as we have been observing since the first Industrial Revolution, but will also coordinate work by establishing direct communication among machines (the so-called Internet of Things).

Some applaud these breakthroughs for realizing the old human dream of liberation from work, whereas others blame them for depriving people of fulfillment through work, and for cutting the link to income and job-related social benefits. According to the latter scenario, more and more jobs will disappear, leading to mass unemployment, although demand will increase for process- and product-design specialists. Studies of the likely effects of AI and increased automation on the labor market are of course highly speculative, but we should not underestimate the possible consequences of new technologies for employment.

Many observers, fearing the worst, have advocated an unconditional workless basic income to ward off foreseeable impoverishment. But, before economists and policymakers begin calculating the costs and benefits of a general basic income, we would do well to question the very premise of a workless future.