Elon Musk says AI will mean people no longer need to work – do HR experts agree?

As the tech billionaire claims artificial intelligence will be able to do everything, people professionals discuss the future

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With tech tycoon Elon Musk claiming that "no job is needed" in the future because of artificial intelligence and that you can have a job for "personal satisfaction" but AI would be able to do everything, does this genuinely indicate a jobless future?

During a 50-minute fireside chat with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the end of the AI summit last week (Thursday 2 November), Musk said: “I think we are seeing the most disruptive force in history here. We will have for the first time something smarter than the smartest human. It’s hard to say exactly what that moment is but there will come a point where no job is needed. 

“One of the challenges in the future will be how we find meaning in life. So I don’t know if that makes people comfortable or uncomfortable.

“That's why I say if you wish for a magic genie that gives you any wishes you want, there’s no limit. You don’t have this three-limit nonsense – you just have as many wishes as you want,” he said, adding that the world would enter “an age of abundance”.

Musk added: “We won’t be on universal basic income, we will be on universal high income – because everyone will have access to this magic genie.” 

However, Sunak disagreed with Musk, saying: "I am someone who believes work gives you meaning.”

He said: “Work is a good thing and gives people purpose in their lives and, if you remove a large chunk of that, what does that mean and where do you get that drive, motivation or purpose?" 

The debate comes as, according to The Telegraph, Labour frontbenchers have been considering a ‘robot tax’ which will target companies that sack staff and replace them with artificial intelligence. 

Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser for data, tech and AI at the CIPD, said a future of “no work” was one of the many possible futures of work, but what happens will depend on how we as a society respond to developments in AI. 

Mohdzaini added that key considerations will include which uses of AI are widespread and accepted and which ones we need to regulate or even “prohibit” – as well as which tasks we still choose to do ourselves and not rely on AI to complete. “It’s worth nothing as AI is already here and there are many examples within HR; for example, AI-embedded internal talent marketplace and AI chatbots for employee queries,” she said. 

People Management asked HR experts if artificial intelligence genuinely means a future without ‘work’ and what impact AI will have on the world of work and the HR function. 

Importance of lifelong learning

“We’re in an unprecedented time where something is going to be far smarter than humanity,” said Annee Bayeux, chief learning strategist at Degreed. 

"What this means for our future career prospects is yet to be determined," she said, adding that, to keep up, we must become lifelong learners who constantly refresh our skills and reinvent our careers.

Bayeux added: "I expect everyone will still want to work in some capacity.

“Of course, finances and living standards also need to be considered; if AI takes most jobs, how will people make a living?

“Simultaneously, we have some organisations like IBM, Unilever and Ericsson transforming into skills-based organisations, with a view of completely removing the job construct. In which case, we will see jobs disappear from our future... but work, in its essence, won’t.”

Bayeux said that while AI will bring many benefits to individuals and organisations, this must be balanced with the risks that such advances can pose. She said employers must “tread carefully”, particularly when using AI in workplaces where adoption is growing exponentially, and that finding the right balance was dependent on employers using solutions with clear employee benefits.

AI will complement humans

David Collings, chair of sustainable business at Trinity Business School, said generative AI has the potential to be hugely disruptive in the world of work, "on top of a pretty disruptive few years in the context of the pandemic and the impact that had on work for many of us". 

He said Musk was "probably correct in the sense that most work could be done to some extent by technology", but the reality was that, rather than replacing humans, "AI will complement humans in the workplace.

"Do we want robots to be the default in law enforcement, health care or education, for example? Even if technologically possible, it is highly unlikely that we would choose that path as a society.”

Collings added that some jobs would be eliminated and that as a society we needed to plan for and support those whose jobs were replaced through proactive reskilling and upskilling.

Collaborative tool

Sarah Hamilton-Gill, managing director of Globus HR Consulting, said the introduction of AI had fuelled fears of a "no-work future", particularly in light of Musk's comments at the AI conference in the UK, but this overlooked its potential as a "collaborative tool" rather than one that replaces current roles. 

“AI is not a harbinger of joblessness but a transformative force in the workplace,” she said, adding that, for HR, AI presents a dual opportunity, optimising operations and enriching the employee experience. 

However, Hamilton-Gill said AI’s rise “necessitates a reskilling revolution” and HR will play a pivotal role in managing this transition. “Rather than displacing jobs, AI can redefine a fostering culture, fostering a future where human ingenuity and artificial intelligence co-exist to enhance productivity and innovation in the workplace,” she added.

Disruption and change 

According to Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, while AI will significantly disrupt work and will replace many jobs, it seems “unlikely to render work obsolete”.

He said that would require more than just AI; it would take a “fundamental reimagining of our global economy and what the labour market is”. 

“Currently people work in exchange for money. If AI does the work, who pays the AI? And where do people get their money from? We aren’t ready as a society to address those issues,” Cookson said.

Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, said the long-term future was “impossible to predict with any real accuracy” but it felt “premature” to predict the end of work and the end of jobs. 

She added that AI brings huge possibilities but also very real and serious risks, and we will need to “embrace the former while managing and mitigating the latter”.

For the CIPD's resources on AI in the workplace, click here

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