Summary: News of the coming great extinction has the chattering classes agog with fear. But they’re (as usual) looking the wrong way. The rapid evolution of algorithms, software, and robots will make many kinds of jobs as extinct as the Great Auk. This will reshape the world into a wonderland — or unleash disastrous social turmoil. It’s up to us.
The Great Auk, last seen 1852. Lots of jobs will go extinct, just as they did.
Yet another of these coordinated-looking propaganda barrages warn us of the danger. These are all from June 2015…
- WaPo: “Earth is on brink of a sixth mass extinction, scientists say, and it’s humans’ fault“.
- Newsweek: “Sixth Great Extinction Under Way, Scientists Say“.
- An over-the-top alarm from National Geographic: “Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?“.
These headlines are correct, but about the wrong subject. They are exaggerated speculation based on false claims about damage to the biosphere (e.g., 30 thousand species going extinct each year). The coming great extinction is of jobs. The drumbeat of automated has become background in the news, the unnoticed washing away of the foundation to American society. When it is seen, the job losses are often attributed to corporate oligarchies, free trade, or massive immigration.
It has just begun. To more clearly see this trend I recommend following the few experts charting the path to this new world. Such as Martin Ford.
Traditionally, robots have been in factories, but I think that over the next 10 to 20 years, automation in the form of robots, smart software and machine learning is really going to invade pretty much across the board. It’s going to start impacting jobs at all skill levels. It’s not just going to be about low-wage people who don’t have lots of education. It’s really starting to impact also professional jobs.
… we’re in the midst of a transition where in the past, machines have always been tools that have been used by people and made those people more productive, but increasingly, the technology is really becoming a replacement or a substitute for more and more workers. That’s going to be a huge issue over the coming decade.
… On Wall Street, most trading is now done by algorithms. There have been lots and lots of jobs that have disappeared already, and again, the important thing is that in many cases, these are skilled jobs. It’s not about the skill level or how much education you have. The primary question is, is the job on some level routine, repetitive and predictable? In other words, can the actions that a worker undertakes in that field be predicted based on what they’ve done in the past?
If the answer to that is yes, then it’s going to be susceptible to machine learning, which is really the central technology that’s driving all of this. It’s a huge range of jobs, and it includes a lot of jobs that are good jobs that people need to go to school for. So that really kind of throws a wrench into our conventional thinking about how all of this has worked in the past.
We already see systems that are beginning to impact journalism that can crank out news stories based on data streams. We see the field of law being impacted, with algorithms that do document review taking over a lot of the more routine work that used to be done by lawyers and paralegals.
A lot of that is driven by machine learning, and is going to scale across a whole bunch of the knowledge economy. I can imagine that over the next couple of decades anyone who has a job sitting in front of a computer doing something that is some on level routine and predictable — cranking out the same analysis or the same report every month — that type of thing is going to be susceptible to this. That’s an enormous number of white-collar jobs out there. At the same time, there’s going to be a huge impact on many more routine, lower-skill jobs as well — areas like fast food, driving vehicles. So it’s really very, very broad-based.
I suspect he underestimates the ability of technology to eliminate jobs. As in this…
“Some of the safest jobs are going to be areas like …car mechanic because it’s really hard to build a robot that can do all of those things.”
The complex hydro-mechanical machinery of a car will always require mechanics. But in ever less amounts as technology replaces human diagnosis with computer analysis, and repairable mechanical parts are replaced by disposable electronics. The result might be somewhat like already seen in home electronics. We still have plumbers and electricians, but few home appliance repairmen.
The growing tsunami of stories about automation shows the real debate: how many jobs will the Great Extinction destroy? Next up: when will we begin to prepare for the coming social disruption?
- “This Is What It Feels Like When A Robot Takes Your Job” by Sara Kessler — “Almost half of U.S. jobs may one day be automated. For some employees who worked at a free on-demand concierge, that day came last month.”
- “ROSS Intelligence Leverages IBM’s Watson To Make Sense Of Legal Knowledge” — A semi-intelligent legal research system that might revolutionize the practice of law.
- “Robots are better investors than people” by John Gapper in the Financial Times. The investment revolution is here; people just have not felt it yet.
- “UK retail sector predicted to cut 900,000 jobs” by Nadia Khomami — “British Retail Consortium says the sector will be much smaller in 2025, but remaining jobs will be ‘more productive and higher earning’.”
- “The Robots are coming for Wall Street” — “Hundreds of financial analysts are being replaced by software.”
- “Next-Gen Robots Poised To Enter Industrial, Commercial Markets” — “These new robots are no longer just capable of performing simple, redundant tasks, but are now able to operate in advanced environments working alongside people.”
Watch a Team of µTug Microrobots Pulls a Car
CafeX unveils fully automated robotic cafe … companion iOS & Android app will allow users to order drinks prior to arrival. Cafe is ~60 sq ft & is open 24 hrs/day.
An ad for IBM’s Watson to ease your worries about the robot apocalypse
Day after day we get new stories about new software and new robots replacing people.This bonanza of productivity can make a better world — or create a nightmarish disaster as power and income concentrates in those who own the machines while jobs disappear and wages stagnate.
One solution is expanded welfare — a guaranteed minimum income — as recommended by Bryan Dean Wright in today’s LAT op-ed “Robots are coming for your job“. That would bake high inequality into American society. Cake for the rich from technology; crumbs for everybody else.
We have 50 years of warnings about the new industrial revolution. It’s here. Our decisions will determine if our future will be Jupiter Ascending or Star Trek. The clock is running.
For More Information
For more of Martin Ford’s insights see “Economic Growth Isn’t Over, but It Doesn’t Create Jobs Like It Used To“, Harvard Business Review, 14 March 2016. Also follow his Twitter feed.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun. Also see the posts about the evidence that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation. And especially see these…
- The promise and peril of automation.
- How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
- At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.
- Looking at America’s future: economic stagnation, or will computers take our jobs?
For deeper analysis see these books…
- The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014).
- Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford (2015).
- The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts by Richard and Daniel Susskind (2016).