Technological improvements have been replacing jobs and tasks since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, yet we have consistently been able to adapt to these changes by inventing new types of work. In the coming decades, however, the rise and development of artificial intelligence and robotics will gravely threaten the ability of the workforce to transition to other jobs and even upend white-collar work in ways we’ve never seen before. In this blog, we will discuss why it is wishful thinking to trust that there will always be enough work to go around in the future and what we can start doing today to make ourselves valuable in a world that does not require human work.
What is happening today
For the last 200 years, each wave of technological improvements have been coupled with a discussion about how advances in technology will result in a loss of work. Regardless of what improvements have come, humans and the economy have been quick to find other tasks that need to be done by people.
There have been thousands of examples of jobs that no longer exist because of new inventions that can perform far better than humans ever could. We used to require people to manually reset the pins at the bowling alley after rolling a strike. Men would walk the streets at dusk to light street lanterns before electricity. Milkmen were kicked to the curb once everyone had a refrigerator. There was even a job for someone to knock on your window or door to ensure you woke up early enough for work before the invention of the alarm clock.
However, a commonality between all of these workers is, as soon as their relatively low-skill jobs were replaced, they could quickly find another low-skill job. A ‘pinboy’ could fairly easily learn how to operate and service a mechanical pinsetter. Nevertheless, something very interesting is happening today and the trend is not slowing down.
I took an Uber to the airport recently and struck a conversation with the driver. I asked how and why he got started driving and it didn’t seem like he had much of choice. Two years ago he worked in a manufacturing plant that laid off almost half of the other employees after investments were made to further automate production. He then took the first job he could get, which he still works part-time at today; helping his cousin at her small, family owned travel agency. Due to a drop in clientele and work, he decided to make some extra cash driving for Uber.
What will he do for work after driverless and on-demand cars fill our streets? Where will he find part-time work after VR headsets become as common as the TV and all the travel booking sites create apps that will allow you to virtually go on any vacation before you book it? Will he work in fast food? Kiosks that take orders and machines that flip burgers already exist today and will eventually become the norm.
Up until now, people have always feared that automation and technology would eliminate jobs but it hasn’t been the case – new jobs have always been created. To assume that will be the case in the (near) future is wishful thinking. There are two reasons why: advances in robotics and algorithms – more specifically, algorithms that can learn.
What the future will look like
Let’s consider the largest employing occupations of 2016, as recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the threat they all face. Notice that most of the occupations are relatively low-skilled. If you lost your job in one of these, it has been generally easy to transition to another low-skilled job. But as robotics and algorithms continue to develop at an exponential rate, they will eventually be able to outperform their human counterparts at all routine tasks.
The reason for this is because these machines will be built for very specific tasks, such as driving a car from A to B as efficiently and safely as possible. It will not need to have good conversational skills or a side job because the system does not require it. It simply drives a car far better, safer and cheaper than you could.
Below are the four jobs that employee the largest number of Americans:
- Retail Salesperson: “No, just browsing. But thank you!” – the response most of us give after a retail salesrep asks if they can help us find something. It would require a pretty deep conversation for a retail salesperson to really get to know what you wanted and provide meaningful insight. There are retail stores today, however, that already deploy face-recognition and eye tracking sensors inside and outside of their store. When you stop and stare at a shirt that catches your eye, the algorithm goes to work, finds out who you are, then advertises that same shirt to you the next time you log into Facebook. Creepy, but convenient. Imagine the same face-recognition technology that links to your Instagram or Pinterest account, analyzes all of the outfits you have worn or “liked” in the last two years, then provides you with the perfect, personalized recommendation. If you haven’t already bought the item online, why would we need a salesperson in the store when an algorithm can immediately know exactly what you want and combine it with the latest trends in under a second?
- Cashiers: In the same retail store, the will be very little need for a cashier after purchasing an item. We assume there would be some sort of self-checkout kiosk in the near future at every store, but Amazon has already taken it a step further with their grocery store AmazonGo that requires absolutely no checkout or lines. Their “Just Walk Out” technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves. When you’re done shopping, you just leave the store. Last year, retailers lost 32 Billion dollars to shoplifters. Imagine this same Just Walk Out technology that makes it impossible to leave the store without purchasing it. Pretty quick ROI for the store owner…
- Food Preparation and Serving: The combined food preparation and serving workers account for the third largest group of employed Americans. 97% of all restaurants in the US are chains – the McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A’s, Subway’s, and Outback’s of the world. These are large corporations that base their decisions off of productivity and efficiency. The first chain of restaurants to automate their food prep and serving processes will likely get plenty of criticism, but the majority of the population will not be able to resist, let alone boycott, how fast and affordable their food and experience will be. Once it becomes more of the norm, a tipping point will be reached and result with the 97% of restaurant chains implementing the same technologies and lose their need for human employees. Having a human server and cook will be seen as a unique and privileged experience.
- Freight: Truck driving is the largest employer of men in the US and one of the most common examples of near-team job automation. Eventually companies will not be able to resist the investment in a self driving truck. The turnover rate at most companies is over 300% – meaning they need to hire 3 employees to do the same job in one year. And will it be aggressively fought on the other side? Truck driving is one of the most brutal jobs on your family, body, and well-being, will there be a huge rally to save such a dreadful profession?
The picture above represents the idea that technology experiences exponential growth. An example of this is Moore’s Law – an observation that the number of transistors per square inch on a circuit doubles every year. To give you an example, if you took 30 linear steps you would count one, two, three, four until you were 30 steps away. However, if you took 30 exponential steps you would count one, two, four, eight, and so on you would circle the planet 26 times. This is the reason why our gadgets keep getting smaller and smaller yet much more powerful. Exponential technology is going to affect every industry in ways we have not seen before.
Technological revolutions have always happened at a relatively slow rate, which allows workers time to retrain and move into other areas of work. Within the next decade or so, machines, computers, and algorithms are going to do our jobs far better than us. By the time we attempt to learn a new skill, the technological improvements will have outpaced the new skill we just learned. Another, far more impactful, difference of this tech revolution is that white-collar jobs are just as at risk.
Travel agents and bank clerks have already become endangered species. Stock-exchange traders rely heavily on trading that is being managed by computer algorithms that process more data in a blink of the eye than what a human could process in a lifetime. Most of what lawyers do is searching through piles of paper or network drives, attempting to find previous cases or loopholes in the law to find helpful evidence or justifications. What will we need a lawyer for when an algorithm can download every legal code, legislation, and precedents on record and present relevant information in minutes? Yet, why even evaluate a persons innocence or guilt when brain scans can accurately identify lies and truths? Even medical professions are at risk because one of the first and most common tasks is diagnosing what is wrong. Doctor’s are extremely smart, but they cannot possibly remember every sickness, diagnosis, or medical journal known to man. They certainly do not have the time to understand my entire medical background, the details of my genetic code or especially the genome and medical history of all of my relatives. In the book Homo Deus, A brief History of Tomorrow, the author sites a recent experiment of a computer algorithm correctly diagnosing 90% of lung cancer cases presented to it, while human doctors had a success rate of only 50%.
So much of what we do is repeatable and predictable. It is inevitable, whether in 20 years or 50, that machines and algorithms will be able to outperform us in the specific tasks that we do. What will we provide to the world when it no longer requires our skills?
A plan for the future
In 1996, a chess-playing computer by the name of Deep Blue took on the chess world champion, Garry Kasparov. Before the match, Deep Blue was immediately dismissed. Experts jumped to the conclusion that chess is an extremely intricate game that only years of experience and the creativity of the human brain could master. No simple machine could ever understand such a complex game. Yet on February 10th, Deep Blue beat Kasparov, stunning the chess community.
In the following years, Deep Blue underwent more upgrades and it was thought to be unbeatable. No human could beat it alone, nor no other computer came close to it’s abilities. It was only when a human teamed up with another computer that Deep Blue was defeated.
The chess-playing computers analyze every possible move when it is it’s turn, then after running calculations and probabilities it decides what the best move should be. Coupling that with the experience and creativity of the human mind is what allowed a less superior algorithm and a human defeat Deep Blue.
If we are to thrive in a world where algorithms dominate the workforce, we need to identify our unique strengths and utilize machines for the powerful tools they are. Imagine a work day that requires zero tedious tasks or thoughts. Even most emails will disappear because the majority of emails are questions or discussions about a decision that needs to be made. We’ll default to asking Chatbots (algorithms that understand human language) for any questions or logical business decisions that haven’t already been accurately addressed.
The experts who have jobs will be expected to spend their time working close with people and computers to utilize their creativity, group problem solving, cooperation and innovation to dramatically influence the business while algorithms run the day-to-day operations.
Artificial intelligence will free us from what we think a job is. The 8 hour workday will seem increasingly unnecessary as the economy will produce more than ever without our help. The mass majority of the population will enjoy the fruits of the machines labor. Eventually, when the economy has lost dependence on human work, governments will need to consider a Universal Basic Income once a large enough population is completely unemployable.
The income gap will progressively widen and the bulk of the population will have more freedom for leisure or to work on what they please – causing a revolution in small scale, artisanal, and homemade production. Very few of us will contribute much to The New York Stock Exchange or GDP anymore; if we choose to work it will be local, human services that require distinct human effort and relationship building. Even machine free movements will spark, such as outdoor pursuits like hunting, that demands human excellence and self-reliance while immersed in nature. An upcoming blog will continue to discuss how our desires for connection won’t change and if we are to be happy in the future we will need to move back closer to our roots and natural needs.
This disruptive change is one that demands attention today. What is the use of people and what meaning will you give your life when you live in a world that doesn’t need your labor? We need to prioritize what is important today and how to structure our lives because as we continue to live longer and longer, very disruptive and unnatural changes will continually occur and magnify.
Every blog will continue to discuss these situations and implications. If you enjoyed reading and want weekly articles on how to live a healthy, happy and stable life in a very unstable future, please come back for more or enter your email address to receive an email of every new post. Thank you for reading and let me know what you agree and disagree with!