Will AI and job automation fundamentally change work as we know it? That is one question Italian-Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini raises in his latest film, ‘After Work’.
His film showcases a mosaic of work experiences - from a gardener cutting a labyrinth in Italy to a bored government office worker in Kuwait - and ponders how they might be upended by philosophy, politics, and technology.
The general artificial intelligence (AI) boom that started in 2022 could replace 300 million full-time jobs - approximately 18 per cent of work globally, according to Goldman Sachs.
Companies like Microsoft, Google and OpenAI have rolled out tools for text, music, and image creation, while workers and artists are pushing for tighter legislation to protect their jobs.
Gandini’s ‘After Work’, which was released in March 2023, explores how work defines us, and the ways in which technology and policy could change it.
“The story of automation technology taking over jobs is much discussed now, but it’s also an old story. I was more fascinated by the question of why we haven’t taken the opportunity before to work less?” Gandini told Context in a video interview.
“We thought that repetitive, boring jobs would be replaced first. And suddenly, (AI is) doing things that we like to do - producing images, text, music and so on.”
Technology should be there to make our life better. It should give us the opportunity to work less. I want to believe that in (this) moment when we really have the opportunity for more time, more freedom, we really have to try.
Erik Gandini, filmmaker, ‘After Work’
Gandini said AI could liberate us from less fulfilling work, but with it already affecting creative jobs wonders what, if anything, humans will be left to do.
AI and the arts
Although ‘After Work’ stops just before the generative artificial intelligence (AI) boom in November 2022, it does examine the effects of the technology.
One U.S. Amazon delivery driver - previously satisfied with her role - is seen becoming jaded as the company installs AI surveillance cameras in her van.
The van’s four cameras focus on the driver’s hands and face, monitoring for when their phone goes off or if they reach for their water bottle.
“Distracted driving”, the system says aloud.
AI is also impacting the arts and creative jobs.
Gandini believes humanity in the arts will be difficult to automate away.
In making ‘After Work’, his editor and composer “did a little experiment with Jukebox”, the OpenAI software, Gandini recalled.
“It was awful. The music had no feeling, no sort of human touch. The human touch, when it comes to art, I think it’s really, really impossible to replace.”
The film also touches on inequality in the world of work, how it might be disrupted by AI, and how policies like universal basic income could help address it.
Universal basic income involves giving people a guaranteed income in the form of regular cash payments, no strings attached - an idea that has risen in popularity as AI threatens to worsen economic disparity.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that “in most scenarios, AI will likely worsen overall inequality”.
Emerging market and developing economies face fewer immediate disruptions from AI, yet lack the infrastructure or skilled workforces to harness the benefits of AI, the IMF said - raising the risk that over time the technology could worsen inequality among nations.
Governments must “proactively address” the situation with “comprehensive social safety nets and … retraining programs for vulnerable workers,” the IMF added.
Gandini believes we must go further, moving away from policies that will put people back into work and think about giving money to everyone - whether they work or not.
Countries like Finland, Spain, and Sudan have used universal basic income to weather economic storms and the coronavirus, as well as trialling it as an alternative to social security models.
Finland’s basic income trial did not spur its unemployed recipients to work more as hoped but it did boost their wellbeing, the government found in 2019.
“I’m not talking about the UBI that is €500 a month, like some experiments, I’m talking about (a) real sort of wage. A wage for doing nothing. I think it will be necessary,” said Gandini.
“Technology should be there to make our life better. It should give us the opportunity to work less. I want to believe that in (this) moment when we really have the opportunity for more time, more freedom, we really have to try.”
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