Over the past year there has been much speculation and tens of thousands of column inches devoted to trying to determine just how many jobs and what type of jobs are going to be replaced by new generation technology.
Today we’re used to, dare we say complacent towards, blue collar worker’s jobs being automated and as the joke goes, the factory of the future might only need a human and a dog to keep it running. A dog to make sure no one tampers with the machines and a human to feed the dog. Fifty years from now however we might find that that job statistic was overly optimistic.
Researchers who have been looking at the impact that technology will have on the workforce seem to agree that in the next twenty to thirty years between 30% and 45% of the global workforce will be at great risk. For every job that’s handed over to the machines there will be at least two that are no longer advertised.
The Human in the Loop
When people talk about the impact technology will have on the jobs market the debates are predicated on how it’s technology that will take our jobs. I want to point this out as a misnomer because it’s not technology that will come after your job, it will be company executives guided by market forces and economics. They will decide that new age machines and systems can do your job better and cheaper than you and it’s they, not an AI, that will instruct HR to E-Mail you your P45.
This might seem like a quaint point to make but it’s important to remember that it’s today's and tomorrow's executives who have the final say on whether or not they make a tier or a section of their workforce redundant. The social responsibility of this 'human in the loop' is all too easily over looked and as a society we mustn’t forget that we have options and a duty of care to each other. Just because we can make people redundant to save money, ruining lives and families is not worth it in the long run.
End of social responsibility message…
The Law of Accelerating Returns
Technology is advancing faster than it ever has before. At current rates, as advanced technologies are combined to create even more advanced technologies over the next 100 years, we won’t see 100 years’ worth of technological progress we’ll see 20,000. Think back to the technologies and platforms we had available to us 500, 200, 100, 10 years ago and just 5 years ago and you’ll be able to see the acceleration for yourself. The consequence of all of this is that the length of time between each wave of industrial and societal disruption is getting progressively shorter, and the upshot is that if technology doesn’t put your job at risk today then it’s likely it will tomorrow.
The squeezed middle
Today there are a collection of technologies stirring the debate, but unlike the disruptions of yesteryear where technologies replaced simple repetitive blue collar job functions near the bottom of the skills and complexity pyramid, they’re now starting to replace white collar knowledge workers near the top. The result is an increasingly nervy global workforce and for the first time ever a squeezed middle who are becoming increasingly paranoid about their lack of specialisms and skills.
The technologies that will have the greatest impact and influence on the job markets can be divided into two groups. 'Individual emerging technologies' such as artificial intelligence, machine vision and hardware and software based robots and 'aggregated emerging technologies' that combine different technologies together to create platforms that include autonomous vehicles, avatars, cloud, connected home, the Internet of Everything, smarter cities, wearables and telehealth.
Some of the world’s best self learning artificial and cognitive computer systems are already replacing advisors, artists, commentators, consultants, doctors, investigators, journalists, musicians, paralegals, teachers, translators and even the data scientists who created the original algorithmic models. Machine vision systems are replacing quality inspectors, security analysts and security guards. Hardware robots have already replaced many of the blue collar factory and warehouse jobs and now they’re replacing bar staff, maintenance workers, porters, soldiers, waiters and surgeons while their new, modern day software only counterparts are replacing administrative staff, customer service clerks and FX traders.
In the AET space autonomous vehicles – from cars and trucks to aircraft and half a million ton cargo ships are reducing the need for drivers, operating crews, pilots and even traffic wardens. Avatars are replacing actors, bank tellers, call centre agents, teachers and support staff. Cloud reduced the need for change managers, enterprise architects and operations staff while the Internet of Everything is reducing the need for engineers, facilities managers and maintenance workers. Smarter cities will reduce the need for police, street cleaners and a myriad of other public servants while wearables and telehealth are both reducing the demand for secondary care workers, doctors and personal trainers.
The lists could go on and on.
Today we’re sitting on the beach, mouths agape watching the tidal wave raise worrying about our futures. Whilst it looks like the balance of power is only ever going to shift into the machines favour there is hope from a number of directions.
Technology is going to keep improving at an exponential rate, so where do we Humans flee to for work? Which jobs are going to be safe, or at least safer harbours for the next twenty years?
Jobs that are hard to specify and that require deep expertise in either one or ideally a mix of the following disciplines will be the hardest to automate: dexterity, emotional intelligence, negotiation, originality, perception, persuasion and social intelligence.
It’s going to be a cold cold world - full of wise cracking artistic chiropractors… Urgh.
Entrepreneurship on the rise
If you’ve read that list and you’re down in the mouth then there’s still hope. Today it’s easier than ever before to create your own business and the power is shifting from the corporations to the individual.
Over the past five years there has been a tenfold increase in the number of registered start ups, from 10 million to over 100 million. Technology has acted as a force multiplier for entrepreneurs helping give them faster, simpler access to funding, expertise, resources, advanced software and hardware prototyping technologies and mass markets.
Consider the tale of Brian Acton. He spent $200 building an app, spent $0 on marketing, scaled it via the social networks and sold it for $19 Billion. Yes, WhatsApp’s great but there are another 218 Brian Actons – forty times more than at any other point in human history who’ve created multi billion dollar companies from next to nothing in just a few years. Those companies have created over $1.5 Trillion in new value and turned established industries on their heads.
Someone Uber me a cab!
If, however, entrepreneurship isn’t for you and you think the future will look increasingly bleak then consider this. Do you really think that in the next 50 to 100 years you will only remain 'human'? During the course of this century, as we all head towards an event called the 'singularity' we are going to be challenged to revise our definition of what it is to be human.
Today we access information via our smart devices, but in the future we will use brain-to-computer interfaces to plug directly into the web. At the same time new genetic technologies like CRISPR, a technology that is so powerful it’s described as 'God like' will help us re-write our own genetic code and enhance our own natural capabilities.
Machines might be scary but human-machine hybrids of the future will be scarier and let’s stay away from the term 'Cyborg' it’s too 1980’s...
If you think the machines will inevitably win the race for jobs, then you’re only looking at the short term but whatever happens, the last thing you should do, in this age of individual empowerment, is roll over and accept the inevitable.