Do Humans Stand A Chance in 2016?

Humans. I have seen the future and I have good news and bad news for you.

Let’s start with the bad news (you save dessert for last right?) The bad news is that in 2016, the inevitable imperial march of technological progress will continue to displace jobs. In fact, it’s a minor miracle that so many human jobs still exist today.

“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed” — William Gibson

While small pockets of the world has started to “employ” our silicon and aluminum cousins to fill roles such as being a waiter, most of the world hasn’t found the time to make the transition. But the shift is about as inevitable as gravity as cost for machine solutions come down and precision in all things computing improves geometrically.

Robot servers in a restaurant in China.
“Sadly, my brain is not doubling in capacity every 18 months.” — Li Jiang

To put it into perspective, a Silicon Valley based startup Knightscope is offering customers advanced security robots that can patrol data centers, office buildings, shopping areas for $6 per hour. Think about that one the next time you hear a minimum wage debate.

There are about 1 million people in the U.S. who work as a security guards, about 2.5 million people who work as waiters and waitresses, 4.9 million works in retail and another quarter million taxi drivers and chauffeurs (not counting Lyft and Uber drivers) in the country. (Disclosure: GSV owns shares in Lyft)

With Tesla calling for a fully autonomous car in two years, Toyota pouring $1 billion into self driving research and numerous car competitors all touting their self driving solutions, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is going to have to be adjusting all those human employment numbers very soon. Downward.

Bleak? Now for the decent, but only so-so news (we’ll get to the really good stuff shortly).

As much progress as computing, machine learning, natural language processing has made, the sheer computing capacity of a computer is still trivial compared to the human brain.

IBM’s most advanced human brain simulated chip has about 1 million programmable neurons and 256 million synapses as of 2014. The average adult human brain contains approximately 86 billion neurons with 150 trillion synapses.

A computer will need to have 80,000–100,000 times greater power to reach the equivalent computing capacity of a human brain. Not so scary anymore, right?

Well not so fast. Something doubling every two years is a powerful and too often overlooked idea. It takes 34 years to reach an over 100,000 times improvement if something is doubling every two years. So it takes about one full generation before we will realistically be discussing human brain level capacity computers.

In the long term, IBM hopes to build a cognitive computer scaled to 100 trillion synapses. This would fit inside a space with a volume of no more than two litres while consuming less than one kilowatt of power.

Still, a computer can perform many specialized functions already much better than humans so displacement and disruption will happen on an on-going basis. If you think you want to try to compete with something that will work for $6 a hour, never get tired, don’t have to eat or go to the bathroom, won’t ask for a vacation or a promotion, good luck to you.

Here’s the real good news of all this. Humans can learn anything.

We are general learning machines with no pre-scripted boundaries, no set objectives that someone else programmed into us. Anyone at any age could with enough persistence learn to be a rocket scientist or a doctor or just a better version of your current self.

2016 will be a year when more people than ever need to get into lifelong learning mode and continue to expand their knowledge and skill set. 2016 will be a year when people find new creative ways to make creativity part of their career or find a career where creativity is valued or even build a new industry where creativity is the value driver.

It won’t be easy for many people to face the realities of the oncoming machine workforce, but know that our species have thrilled for a good reason: adaptability.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

Good luck humans and may the Force (also known as this beautiful four billion years in the making evolutionary miracle that gave you the ability to learn anything) be with you.

— Li Jiang @gsvpioneer