Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

Elon Musk must think only in terms of metal and plastic. It is as if he totally misunderstands the existence of natural things.

“One of the challenges in the future will be how we find meaning in life if you have a magic genie who can do anything you want,” he told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week. He clarified that “there will come a point where no job is needed. Artificial intelligence (AI) [the magic genie] will be able to do everything”.

We know that the compounding effect of new hardware, huge amounts of data and fast evolving artificial intelligence is going to be incredibly disruptive, and we are already seeing the impact in many sectors, legal and illegal, wonderful and distressing. Years ago, we accepted the arrival of the digital world with its benefits for information, entertainment and work but the overlay of ransomware, identity fraud and gross misbehaviour on social media means it has been as harmful as good. Not least since, unlike the expectations of the late 1990s/early 2000s, its benefits have not been effectively captured by business to boost GDP and benefit all of society.

So, let us do a better job with AI than we have done with the wider digital world to date. This starts by being less sensational and certainly less simplistic about the future of work. There are enough reasons for mental stress among even the youth in our workforce.

A report by economist David Autor found that 60% of today’s workers are employed in occupations that did not exist in 1940, so we know there will be further change. There are many routine office tasks which computerisation, supported by AI, is already replacing, and a variety of other manufacturing and service jobs where the human aspect of the work might be easier and the number of employees reduced with more advanced mechanisation.

Leather needs a trained artisan

However, if you want a good-looking coat or a bag that lasts longer and can be repaired, AI is not going to be the answer. You need a trained artisan, lots of trained artisans. What’s more, while you might at some stage want to use AI for stock control, accounting and the like, companies will want to keep AI far away from the workshop.

Responding to Musk, Sunak said that he believed “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?”

There are many jobs in our aging world where humanity matters, and the personal touch will be impossible to replace. Countries which dislike immigration are looking to humanoid solutions, which we are told offer “non-human entities with human form or characteristics” but, like the new AI-assisted Beatles record, they are likely to offer competence rather than creditability. The human touch matters, as it does when tanning and using a natural material such as leather.

Death on Mars

Elon Musk has said that he would like to die on Mars, “just not on impact”. Given that he chose to replace leather with plastic in Tesla cars, he has perhaps not thought through the benefits of natural materials. Most plastics have no more than a 20-year working life, and coated synthetics that are fighting to replace leather often fail in months rather than years. A look at the chairs (right) when I arrived at London Gatwick airport last month highlights this point.

Forget about the all-plastic waste dump he will have on Mars. Instead, think of the biodiversity loss and the acceleration of climate change that come with replacing leather with plastic. Before he rushes to a false future, Elon Musk needs to consider the important role natural materials like leather, wool and silk play in society and the benefits they offer through employment. This is exactly how we “find meaning in life”.

Particularly after saving up for them, leather bags, chairs or coats are items we will cherish for many years and have exceptionally powerful meaning. We should celebrate the fact that there are jobs existing today in the future that play a part in their production. Let the “magic genie” step aside.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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