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When will there be more robots than humans in the workforce?

Read an extract from Eli Lee's 'A Strange and Brilliant Light' for this month's book club

26 October 2021, 2.42pm
'A Strange and Brilliant Light' explores the impact of the AI revolution through the eyes of three very different young women
Tara Winstead/Pexels

This is chapter 11 of 'A Strange and Brilliant Light' by Eli Lee, a novel we are reading as part of our book club. Find out more about how to join here.

Rose crossed the back of the gloomy, white-walled room and sat alone. She was early to the meeting so she wasted time by pushing the scuffed carpet flat with her trainers and glancing up to watch people come in. There was something unusual happening today – facing the audience were two young men, one frowning at a laptop, the other frowning even more intensely at his mobile phone. They appeared to be in their early thirties, and both wore smart, attractive clothes – shirts under jumpers, well-fitting jeans and stylish trainers. The one on the left, scratching his greying stubble, was dark and thin, with sunken eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. The one next to him, now staring at the crowd with a complacent confidence, was broad-shouldered, muscular and handsome. In their brisk, somewhat impatient movements, they both gave off a slightly precious air, as though they were doing everyone else a favour by being there. She had no idea who they were.

Standing to their right was Alek, his eyes trained downwards as somebody else Rose didn’t know whispered in his ear. Almost as if he’d known he had to up his game, he’d worn his most fashionable clothes – a red jumper he liked, black jeans and black trainers she hadn’t seen before. She couldn’t deny it, he looked good. The deep concentration on his face as he listened to the whisperer spiked a moment’s jealousy – she would have loved to receive such focus from him, or at the very least, for him to look up to see if she’d come.

After another ten minutes or so, during which the room filled up even more, Alek took his seat at the front and introduced the two men. Slouching, with one leg crossed over the other, his tone so casual he sounded almost bored, he talked at length about who they were and what they’d done. They were there to give a talk, he said, and Rose was surprised at their pedigree – they were both University of Ulrusa lecturers and they would be talking about source gain. He had broken the group’s unspoken rule, then – he’d brought in experts – two men who likely had quite a bit more education than anyone else in the room and presumably were in no danger of losing their jobs any time soon. Rose hoped this was a one-off, although given the extent to which he talked over everyone at the meetings these days anyway, it might just be a continuation of the same thing, except at least he was finally being explicit about it.

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The handsome one spoke first. He took a swig of water, leaned forward with his elbows resting on his thighs and his fingers interwoven, changed his expression to one of concerned alertness, then started telling them where they were on the aut arrival timeline and what was to come, as if they had no idea themselves. He had a Mejiran accent, his voice was loud and clear, and he spoke as if he was recounting important information they had until then been denied. Rose wanted someone to say, ‘We know,’ because they’d talked about it loads, but everyone sat and listened in silence, giving the impression that their own knowledge was only provisional, which was ridiculous. She was frustrated that Alek, sitting beside him, his face a model of concentration, wasn’t interrupting or pressing him to move onto something else.

‘But the question is not only when will the tipping point be reached – when will there be more auts than humans in the workforce –’ the man said, sitting back, ‘it’s also where AI goes after that, and how can we respond?’

Rose stared at him grimly. Well done, she thought, for giving us the most basic insight in the entire history of insights. Is that what it took to be an expert? Recounting speculations and statistics gleaned from elsewhere, then topping it off by asking a question everyone else had been asking for years, but presenting it as though you were the first to think of it? She would have walked out – only the presence of Alek, whispering intently to this man now, causing in her a flash of longing, kept her where she was. She scanned the audience, wondering if she might meet anyone else’s dissatisfied eye, but they were all politely watching the speaker – if they felt short-changed, it didn’t look like anyone was going to say so.

The man was now nodding at Alek’s whispers, inhaling heavily. This went on for quite a while. Rose suddenly remembered an unusual thing – Alek in his bedroom, pulling off one of his jumpers (he didn’t own very many, it was against his beliefs), refusing to wear it, worried that it made him look small. This was a disheartening thing to think about at this particular moment. Eventually, he stopped whispering and sat back, and the man who’d just delivered the talk smiled, satisfied. The other one glanced at Alek, who nodded briskly, encouraging him to start.

This one at least had a nervous charm to him. He fiddled for a moment on his laptop while coughing, and when he looked up at them, he tugged unconsciously and endearingly childishly several times on the hem of his shirt. In a high, reedy voice, he began to tell them about the history of post-labour movements – or, more accurately, as he was keen to clarify, the history of theoretical post-labour movements, since none had ever yet been realised. Rose already knew about this, too, but she listened carefully anyway. His talk contained two hard facts. The first was that a society in which auts did all the labour and humans were effectively free was still a dream. If it now came into being, it would be the first of its kind. The second was that the time had never been more ripe for it. ‘Now,’ he said, peering out from those gloomy eyes, ‘we have the technology. True leisure, true creativity and true freedom are within our reach for the first time in human history – and so we must set up source gain and welcome the auts.’

It was a shame his voice was so adenoidal, because this was really a quite stirring idea. Rose knew Alek liked to talk sometimes about how there might be other outcomes with the auts – like conscious AI that saw no need for humans and wiped them out, or military superauts that would be able to eviscerate half the planet within minutes – and yet he was sitting there fervently nodding. She had to agree, though, it was a cool thought. But this guy wasn’t doing anything special, either – any of them could have done some research and conjured up a proclamation or two. It was a step up from his colleague’s presentation only in that he had dug a little deeper. Rose was irritated by his authority, though, and because of that she was almost wilfully looking for a flaw in what he was saying. It occurred to her that time and again he was presenting an inevitable connection between the freedom of a post-work society and being given money, but to her, predicating such a bold idea of freedom on handouts didn’t make sense.

The problem was – her problem was – that source gain otherwise sounded so good that she assumed this niggling feeling she had must be idiotic. Even so, she tried it out again: even if auts did all the work, you still needed income, and if that income came from a single source, you were dependent on that source. You weren’t free. She needed to remember this to investigate it later. She knew how her brain worked – she’d have an epiphany, a blazing insight, and then it’d float beyond her grasp and she’d lose it, and have to piece it together again from the start. She told herself to remember one thing: freedom.

Meanwhile, Alek and the lecturers had begun a discussion amongst themselves, going over the same old ground, repeating and complimenting each others’ words, but barely turning to the audience at all, not even to ask if there were questions. Instead, Rose and the rest of the group sat watching while the three men talked together and laughed, Alek’s face lit up like a happy child the whole time.

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