Automation and the Destruction of Work — Not If, but when…

It is simply a function of TIME. The nature, speed and quality of our innovative capacity has become extraordinary. Look around, if you see some work being done and don’t believe that that job will eventually be done faster, and more efficiently by a machine, then you are kidding yourself. The ONLY question is TIME. How long will it take us to build a robotic hand that seamlessly opens door knobs of all kinds ( check the DARPA challenges — making good progress). How long before thought and surveillance skills of a police officer are replicated by an agile robot with FAR greater sensory capability. Humans have an innate drive to see a challenge and overcome it. To not reach this conclusion is to doubt our will power and turn your back on centuries of technological advances.

Now that is not to say that EVERY single job will be replaced. I am very comfortable with the idea that innovation will create NEW jobs. History and practicality dictate that. When you reach a new horizon the view is different. New Opportunities arise, new areas of study and we will have to react to our new realities. So in the near term, after every innovation and new horizon, new work will be created. If you can imagine a new job being created by innovation, you should be able to imagine the same new job being replaced by automation, it is only a question of how much TIME does it take for the automation to catch up.

What is work? For me, a simple way to examine work is that it is a combination of two elements PHYSICAL LABOR + INTELLIGENCE. Every job has a different mix of those two elements. If you are a ditch digger, that takes a lot of physical labor and not a lot of intelligence. Whereas being a college professor doesn’t require a lot of physical labor, but certainly uses a lot of intelligence. For centuries, man had developed tools that aid us in our work. Tools to help us dig that ditch (like a backhoe) or tools that help our intelligence (like calculators and computers). We became more and more productive and could produce more output per each employee. The more the tools aided us the more productive we could be. This increase in productivity and profitability drives innovation. That is why automation is inevitable. Anything involving humans has limitation. We get tired, we need sleep and we are not interested in working 24/7. Thus there will always be a drive by the owners of capital to decrease reliance on human labor and replace it with AI & Robotics. AI for the “intelligence” and robotics for the physical labor. Machines operating just on par with humans are ALREADY 3x more efficient based on the 24/7 model. Also machines don’t require health care, annual salary increases, sick and vacation days, lunch and time on their facebook account.

Now you might question my equation of work… and I’m okay with that. Pastors, Imams and Rabbis do work and that requires more than intelligence + labor. I understand that there is a human element missing from my equation, however that human element is relevant in fewer and fewer jobs. Sales is often referenced by people, however Amazon seems to do alright without sales people. So what “humanity” do we bring to the equation? That’s a discussion for another time, but suffice it to say I do not predict that ALL jobs will go away, just many of them. Some jobs may persist because humans actually choose to prefer humans over machines because of that “human touch” (think of all those annoying automated help lines — they haven;t mastered those yet). Furthermore, I recognize that there is nuance to both physical labor and intelligence. It is not a one-size-fits all world and I think that is why most people find it difficult to project automation replacing most work. I don’t find that to be challenging because I know the right motivations are there, increased profit and the desire to innovate/improve what we do. If a job proves to difficult to automate today, that challenge drives innovation and to prove the doubters wrong. That is why I believe that comprehensive automation is simply a function of TIME, not ability.

So if you accept my premise, then the only remaining question of automation replacing MOST work is WHEN? When is the robot nimble and dexterous and precise enough? When is the AI fine tuned enough to replace the intelligence portion of our equation. I own and operate a hedge fund, previously viewed as a “high intelligence” job and I can tell you that that job has become 100% automated, so it certainly can be done and will be done. In each field there are programmers and technicians working to figure it out.

Many argue that the time to replacement of most work by automation is too far away to matter to us. I can’t tell you how troubled I am by this argument. It assumes that the solutions we need to find to our future problems are at our finger tips. Let’s say that the maximum jobs losses from automation are 100 years away… If the problems and changes to society take us 102 years to solve, we are already 2 years too late. We simply do not know how long it will take to figure things out. In some case we may already be too late to solve them. Time is not a reason for us to avoid thinking about the consequences of automation. Delayed impact is a natural excuse for this generation and we have a great track record of passing the buck down the road and leaving our kids to figure it out (see Social Security and Medicare). I suspect that is actually how most people view the problem. But I believe that waiting for the problem will not work for the truck drivers in this country. 2.4 million American jobs likely gone over the next decade as autonomous drive trucks take over. Think that is Science Fiction? Budweiser already completed their first 1000 mile delivery. Amazon just announced cashier-less convenience stores. That’s another 3.6 mil American jobs gone. When someone can tell me what these people will do for jobs I will rest a little easier. My organization will try to work with these people today to plan for a future that they choose, rather than one that is chosen for them.

The final argument that many make about new innovations is that it will create many more jobs. I have already agreed that each new innovation creates a new job. Pre-Internet, who would have guessed what a Web Development Specialist did for work? Was it like a Beekeeper for spiders, coaxing them to make more intricate designs? So yes, new jobs will be created, I am convinced. It’s the amount of new jobs that I am concerned about. Furthermore, it is the speed at which that new job converts to being fully automated which should have some concerned. As machines begin to program and teach other machines, the learning curve and the innovation speed will accelerate greatly. I am arguing that every single process we do requires less and less human input each day and that decline is accelerating. It will likely catch our society off guard.

Lastly, there is finite capital in the world buying finite goods and those goods require less and less human input. That means simply… less human work to produce the goods and services that we consume. I have heard arguments for “fake” or “fantasy” work, but that is a discussion for another day. Work as we know it is changing and being eliminated, one automation at a time. Join us at ForHumanity as we endeavor to understand what this means for our society and attempt to prepare us for this new reality.