In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 technology would be so advanced that three hours of work per day would suffice.
Has AI brought about the transformation that Keynes predicted, asks Atanu Biswas.
As you and I argue over the 70-hour workweek proposed by N R Narayana Murthy for India's youth, Elon Musk has made alarming claims regarding artificial intelligence's (AI's) impact on the world economy and labour market.
'There will come a point where no job is needed -- you can have a job if you want to have a job for sort of personal satisfaction, but AI will be able to do everything,' Mr Musk said to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the recent AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park, UK.
Will the AI-impacted global job market really evolve towards such an alarming scenario? Or is it over the top?
One may remember that just a year ago, at a tumultuous beginning in his leadership at Twitter (renamed X), Mr Musk advised staff members to be prepared for 80-hour workweeks for survival.
With that template, how would one judge his current prophecy?
Mr Musk startles us with his outrageous forecasts on various issues. He now thinks that AI may be the 'magic genie' that would bring about a 'universal high income'.
However, doesn't 'no human work needed' seem just as scary, if not more so, than an 80-hour workweek?
Many disagreed with Mr Musk's prediction that AI would transform the workplace like this. At least for the time being.
'I think that certainly over a 50-year period, we should be concerned,' Mustafa Suleyman, a British AI researcher and co-founder of DeepMind, stated.
However, because AI has such a huge footprint, the global work culture will invariably experience a paradigm shift. And there will inevitably be less work for humans to carry out.
In fact, the history of human civilisation, from the development of wheels to the introduction of machines in Nottingham's textile industry, and from steam engines to electricity, demonstrates that technological revolutions not only boost productivity but also shift some human labour to machines that humans have created, thereby decreasing human workloads.
Thus, nearly every new technology should cause some instability in the labour market, despite offering significant societal advantages.
Isn't AI just another technology that will, in some ways, reduce the need for human labour?
Truly, a world without work might be more dystopian than utopian. Society might profit from using AI to do "less" work and 'better' work, but eliminating 'work' completely would not be beneficial.
An ardent supporter of China's infamous '996' work culture, which means from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, Jack Ma, the country's richest man, predicted in August 2019 at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai that in the next 10 to 20 years, thanks to advancements in technology and educational reform, people may work as little as three days a week, four hours a day.
Mr Musk, incidentally, was on stage alongside him. It merely took him more than four years to come up with an even more radical forecast.
The 2010 Nobel Prize-winning labour economist Christopher Pissarides claimed that AI may allow people to work four days a week, sparking a global buzz around the ChatGPT revolution.
Many experts have more radical ideas, for sure. For instance, Justin Yifu Lin, dean of Peking University's Institute of New Structural Economics, stated at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2023 that people might only work one day a week for five hours when AI undertakes most work in the future.
And according to a recent estimate from Accenture, generative AI will impact 40 per cent of people's working hours. This, however, is by no means an indication that 40 per cent of jobs will be lost.
Thinkers such as Oscar Wilde and others envisioned a time when technology would eliminate the monotony of labour and result in reduced working hours.
John Maynard Keynes as well, in a 1930 paper titled Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, predicted that in a century, or roughly by 2030, productivity would soar and technology would be so advanced that three hours of work per day for five days a week, or a 15-hour workweek, would suffice for human needs.
As a result of the increased standard of living, Keynes predicted a massive rise in incomes over the next century in an unparalleled era of leisure.
Currently, Mr Musk and others are echoing his vision. Has AI brought about the transformation that Keynes predicted nearly a century ago?
Keynes believed that 'three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.'
Would 'old Adam' truly be happy with that little effort, though? Perhaps so.
Brendan Burchell from Magdalene College in Cambridge led a study published in 2019 in the journal Social Science & Medicine that found that eight hours of paid work per week was the optimal amount of benefit for mental health -- and that no extra benefit was subsequently accrued!
AI may continue to spur enormous innovation that will support many existing industries and may even open up numerous new avenues for growth, which would ultimately result in the creation of additional employment rather than encouraging the obsolescence of human labour.
Being aware of and adapting to the new technologies, including AI, that surround us is the wisest course of action.
The most intelligent thing humans can do is embrace and integrate technology in order to increase productivity and efficiency. Always.
The AI-driven global job market may support the Keynesian hypothesis rather than the gloomy 'Muskian' prophecy. At least, we may hope so.
Atanu Biswas is professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com