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‘In a world of robots, we become the robots’: Four experts tackle the future of work at Brussels debate

21:09 25/11/2019

As technology leaves an ever greater impact on the job market and the idea of a universal basic income gains ground, what does it mean for the future world of work?

Networking club Full Circle invited four speakers to debate the issue at an interactive talk in Ixelles that took in workers’ rights, feminism, inequality, climate change and surveillance capitalism.

For Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, CEO, author and lecturer, robots and basic income will render life meaningless. “Everything is planned for a predictable, frictionless life. We don’t have to make any decisions,” she says.

“It’s a Silicon Valley dream. The idea of getting rid of uncertainty is appealing but it’s a kind of behavioural eugenics, removing flaws, friction and conflict in favour of an optimal existence. We find meaning in work, it’s difficult, it brings us together, it stretches us, it requires us to help others and to be helped. But in a world of robots, we become the robots.”

'Where meaning lies, if not in work'

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst, professor of English literature and author. In his practice he sees lots of patients complaining of exhaustion and a nervous compulsion to be active, he says, constantly feeling they’re falling short of what they’re meant to do in an overworked, overstimulated culture. Too many people are stuck in stressful, unfulfilling jobs, and society is beginning to address a world without work.

“Universal basic income and a four-day week are responses to the impending reality of automation and artificial intelligence,” he says. “We live in a world where work is the centre of our lives: if that disappears, we need to ask basic questions about where meaning lies if not in work. How do we define ourselves? The closer we get to the work scarcity horizon and a fully automated world, the more we hide from it, taking refuge in overwork.”

When it comes to technology, journalist and author Aaron Bastani believes it isn’t taking us where we need to go as individuals or as a society. “If technology is embedded in social and environmental expectations, it won’t be of benefit,” he said. “We need to look at capitalism as something that is no longer creating abundance and ever greater prosperity and to understand that it’s inhibiting our growth as a species.

“We need a conversation about a shorter working week and more universal basic services, rather than income. Universal basic income won’t sort the world’s problems, but free bus transport could. Technology has already created huge inequalities and it will stretch liberal democracy far more than we can imagine.”

Designing the future

Alison Tate, director of economic and social policy at the International Trade Union Confederation, questioned who benefits from the technology that is central to our lives. “Who is designing the future of our work and our society?” she asks. “Who decides where investment goes, what are the future jobs? We want to see a human-centred society where technology serves humans, not the other way round. What framework do we have for addressing issues like climate change when unemployment is reaching crisis levels in a world focused on technology determining the future?”

Cohen agrees: “If we put human interest and desire first in shaping the world of work and how we want to live, it looks different to if we ask what technology can deliver.”

On the question of identity, Heffernan suggested people focus on society. “Sociologists understand we are suffering from loneliness and isolation because everybody is working all the time,” she said. “Help your neighbour. Pay attention. Being useful to each other in a community is immensely valuable to us as humans.”

Full Circle is an international club for ideas, exchange and creative discussion. It runs events including lunchtime talks, evening salons, dinner debates and receptions for young people.

Written by Sally Tipper