In 1930 the great economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. He said technical improvements in industry had been proceeding at a faster rate in the previous decade than ever before. It would soon be possible to perform all operations of agriculture, mining and manufacturing with a quarter of the workforce that was then employed in those industries. The world was being afflicted by a new disease called technical unemployment. Keynes speculated about a future in 2030 when people only had to work 15 hours a week. He was spectacularly wrong.

Almost a century later, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf wrote in a foreign affairs article that the techno-optimists believe humanity stands on the verge of breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries. The University of Johannesburg’s Tshilidzi Marwala says 70% of the jobs that exist today will not exist i...

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