I've been warning all year, in five articles on the subject, that many current jobs are on the verge of being automated out from under those who occupy them. Now the Harvard Business Review points out that automation is a much more immediate threat to them than many workers imagine.
... we will soon be looking at hordes of citizens of zero economic value. Figuring out how to deal with the impacts of this development will be the greatest challenge facing free market economies in this century.
. . .
To be sure, technological progress has always displaced workers. But it also has created new opportunities for human employment, at an even a faster rate. This time, things may be very different – especially as the Internet of Things takes the human factor out of so many transactions and decisions. The “Second Economy” (the term used by economist Brian Arthur to describe the portion of the economy where computers transact business only with other computers) is upon us. It is, quite simply, the virtual economy, and one of its main byproducts is the replacement of workers with intelligent machines powered by sophisticated code. This booming Second Economy is brimming with optimistic entrepreneurs, and already spawning a new generation of billionaires. In fact, the booming Second Economy will probably drive much of the economic growth in the coming decades.
And here is the even more sobering news: Arthur speculates that in a little more than ten years, 2025, this Second Economy may be as large as the original “first” economy was in 1995 – about $7.6 trillion. If the Second Economy does achieve that rate of growth, it will be replacing the work of approximately 100 million workers. To put that number in perspective, the current total employed civilian labor force today is 146 million. A sizeable fraction of those replaced jobs will be made up by new ones in the Second Economy. But not all of them. Left behind may be as many as 40 million citizens of no economic value in the U.S alone. The dislocations will be profound.
Suppose, today, that the robots and smart machines of the Second Economy are only capable of doing the work of a person of average intelligence – that is, an IQ of 100. Imagine that the technology in those machines continues to improve at the current rate. Suppose further that this rate of technological progress raises the IQ of these machines by 1.5 points per year. By 2025 these machines will have an IQ greater than 90% of the U.S. population. That 15 point increase in IQ over ten years would put another 50 million jobs within reach of smart machines.
Impossible? In fact, the vanguard of those 115-point IQ machines is already here. In certain applications, the minds of highly educated MD’s are no longer needed.
. . .
Machine intelligence is already having a major effect on the value of work – and for major segments of the population, human value is now being set by the cost of equivalent machine intelligence.
. . .
Ultimately, we need a new, individualized, cultural, approach to the meaning of work and the purpose of life.
There's more at the link. Crucial, essential reading for anyone employed today, or who hopes to be employed in the future. Also, read the 'Second Economy' article cited in the text. It's a seminal work.
This is a real conundrum. Businesses are going to choose the lowest-cost options available to them in order to maximize their productivity and profit. If that means paying a few tens of thousands up front for a robot or automated system, but then having no ongoing salary, training, medical care or other costs for it . . . the human worker's going to go to the wall. Count on it.
Elon Musk, Steven Hawking and others are on record warning about the possible dangers of artificial intelligence systems to the human race. They're thinking more in terms of machines taking over the running of the world, whether we like it or not. I think a more immediate threat is that even in its current, extremely limited versions, artificial intelligence is already threatening our livelihoods.
If you are currently employed, ask yourself: Can a machine do my job? The answer may surprise you. It's not just blue-collar jobs that are in danger: increasingly, white-collar and intellectual work is facing the same threat. I'd say that anywhere from half to two-thirds of the current workforce might be replaced by machines or software during the next ten to fifteen years. If your job might be one of those facing automation, start reorienting your future right now, before the rush of newly unemployed people overwhelms you. Look for re-training in new fields, and areas of employment where humans are unlikely to be replaced. You need to be ahead of the ball on this one. Time is not on your side.