Automation is Accelerating And Society Is Unclear What It Will Mean

“…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

It’s almost daily that we hear another story about how a company was able to automate jobs or that Artificial Intelligence can already perform certain tasks much better than humans.  Obviously automation and AI bring both advantages and disadvantages.  Performing tasks more quickly and accurately not only increases productivity, but in the case of medical procedures can even save lives.

Some recent examples include:

  • Robots are already doing 80% of the work at this Danish Pension fund
  • Enlitic, a company who uses deep learning to make doctors faster and more effective, was 50% better at classifying malignant tumours and had a false-negative rate (where a cancer is missed) of zero
  • Changying Technology company replaced 90% of its factory workers with robots resulting in a 250% increase in productivity and 80% drop in defects

In fact, the rise of the use of industrial robots has skyrocketed in recent years with China being the largest buyer.  By some estimates, nearly 70% of China’s jobs could be automated.

Automation in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is it a new phenomenon.  The industrial revolution was built on automation.  It created enormous productivity gains, wealth gains and helped the population transition from 41% working in agriculture in 1900, to around in 2% 2000.

However, over the last 30 years productivity gains have not brought about a subsequent rise in income levels.  This affects middle income families most.  Wages stagnate while productivity and inflation increase and people must take on more debt to get by.  At a time when wages are stagnating we also see a large growth in both healthcare and education costs.

 

Will there be any jobs?

The main worry is that as more jobs are automated, the unemployment rate will increase.  But the current US unemployment rate is less than 5%, so what’s the worry?  The unemployment rate captures those who are currently looking for work and are either employed or not employed.  What about the ones who want a job, but have been unemployed so long that they’ve stopped looking?

Another figure called the labor force participation rate looks at all people of working age who are employed.  This number got a large boost in the late 1960’s as women began to enter the workforce, but has recently been on the decline.

 

The same story goes for the global labor force participation rate.  There is large population growth, however the rate of those working is slowly declining.  Economists are somewhat split as to whether or not automation is the real cause, but the fact remains that the rate is declining.  You can read a good article by a pair of MIT economists and their view of automation here.   They highlight several variables they believe are contributing to the stagnation.

 

We’ve seen the problem but what’s the solution?

Problems are easy to identify, but the solutions are a bit trickier.  Though I don’t believe we are headed into a “skynet” type of scenario where the machines actually take over, I do believe that we are in a time of Transition and this transition will pose certain challenges over the course of 1-2 decades.  There are a few things we should be looking at now to prepare for the future.

An Evolution in Education

Our current system of education was set up to handle the previous industrial revolution.  The jobs of tomorrow will be built around higher level skills.  The ability to analyze data and think critically in order to solve a problem will continue to gain in importance, but it’s not just about STEM.

The future of work will be different than the one we know today.  The days of working for a large company for 30 years, receiving a pension and a gold watch are gone.  54 million Americans (34% of the workforce) already identify themselves as freelancers.   What does this mean for education?

I tend to agree with Ken Robinson and the fact that we need to help our children identify what they are interested in and what they are naturally talented at.  From there, I would add that we need to help them build a personal brand or business around those 2 things.  The future of work will be project based, with people jumping from project to project and these projects will be with different companies.  People will be valued for the skills they have and will not be tied to any single employer.

Universal Healthcare

I don’t really have to talk about this to my European colleagues as most countries offer some sort of basic universal healthcare.  However in the US, this is not the case.  Unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy.  Not only does the US have the most expensive medical system in the world, but it ranks poorly on most indicators of health.

The list goes on but you get the picture.  No system is perfect, but at a time when the rate of unemployment is set to increase, having a safety net for the 29 million Americans already uninsured is imperative.  And the fact is there are models out there which cost less and have better outcomes.

Basic Income

This is the topic du jour.  I’ll go ahead and say that I’m not head over heels in favor of it and I don’t believe there’s currently enough data to back it up.  How will we pay for it?  Will it demotivate people from working?  What will the system look like?

I am, however, in favor of testing out the concept.  There are several countries testing the concept in 2017 such as Kenya, Finland, USA, Netherlands, Canada, India, Italy, and Uganda.

For this one, I don’t think it really has anything to do with policies from the Left or Right, but it’s more about what works and what doesn’t.  We need to employ the Lean Startup methodology of Build, Measure, Learn.  We need data before we can make a decision.  The system won’t look the same in any 2 countries so what may prove successful in Finland may not be successful in India.

The future is bright…but not in these jobs

I’m an eternal optimist and whole heartedly believe that Robotics and Artificial Intelligence will usher in a wonderful new world.  However, we will go through a period of Transition and it will be difficult for many people around the world.  It’s better if we get out in front of the problems and start to prepare now, rather than when we reach an inflection point and begin to panic.

As for me, I’ll try and make sure that I’m not working in any of these jobs…..

Leave a Reply