Over forty years ago, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore observed, in what later became known as “Moore’s Law,” that the transistor count of computer processors doubles every eighteen months. With each doubling, comes a huge leap in computing power.
In the years since Moore made that observation, the transistor count of computer processors has climbed from approximately two thousand to more than four billion. One consequence of this, which we can all relate to, is that our iPhone 6 now has more computing power than the computers NASA used to land a man on the moon.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the potential consequences of computer power doubling every two years. At that rate, the power of computers will increase by a factor of one million over the next forty years. Computer visionary Bill Joy pointed out that jet travel is faster than walking by a factor of one hundred, and we have all seen how that has changed the world.
Nothing in our experience prepares us for what the world will be like forty years from now.
This raises a multitude of issues including, but not limited to, the potential for radical shifts in employment and income inequality.
In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), asked what jobs will be left once computing power enables inexpensive, computerized solutions to problems that previously required costly human engagement.
Economist John Maynard Keynes made the prediction, decades ago, that society is heading toward a period of technological unemployment. Keynes predicted that society would discover ways to increase labor efficiency more rapidly than it would find new uses for labor.
Industries and workers that may soon be transformed and/or replaced by computers, include the following:
Construction and production
Call center operators
Office workers and administrative support staff
In The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?, Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, and Michael A. Osborne, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, estimate that 47 percent of total U.S. employment is in the high-risk category of potentially becoming automated over the next several decades.
As industrial robots become more advanced with enhanced senses and dexterity, they will be able to perform a wider array of non-routine manual tasks. Google has already introduced a driverless car. In 2016, Ford will begin testing self-driving Fusion Hybrids on the roads in California. In May of 2015, Daimler began testing the first self-driving semi-truck on the highways of Nevada.
The number-one job held by American men (2.9 million of them) is truck driver. The number-one job held by American women (three million of them) is administrative assistant. Both of these occupations and many more are likely to be performed by computers rather than humans in the near future.
A video of the Tesla manufacturing plant on YouTube shows how a Tesla Model S goes from raw materials to a finished automobile, with the help of 160 robotic machines. What is most amazing about the video is how few human workers are required to create a Tesla Model S.
A company called Momentum Machines, in San Francisco, has designed a fully automated burger assembly line that replaces burger line cooks entirely. It cooks the meat, slices and dices all of the fresh ingredients, and fully assembles the finished product. Moreover, it does it faster, more consistently and more economically than human workers.
By replacing human workers, the machine reduces labor costs, liability, management duties and space requirements. A significant percentage of the current 3.6 million fast food workers will be impacted by the use of machines designed to do their jobs, faster, more efficiently and more cost effectively.
In May 2015, McDonald’s employees protested outside McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, demanding higher wages. At the same time, we are seeing mounting pressures to increase workers’ wages, we are seeing innovations in technology that provide business owners with viable options to reduce labor costs and improve business performance by eliminating jobs performed by costly human workers.
The greater the pressure to increase minimum wages, the more pressure employers may feel to replace low-skilled workers with machines. At the same time that improvements in technology are eliminating jobs, society must confront the challenge of creating even more jobs, with livable wages, to satisfy the needs of our existing and growing population. How will society meet this challenge? This is something we all need to be thinking about.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers says that these issues will be “the defining economic feature of our era.”
However, machines are not good at everything. As Brynjolfsson notes, Machines are not very good at motivating, nurturing, caring and comforting people. Human interactions are important and, so far at least, machines are wholly inadequate for those kind[s] of tasks.
Some argue that automation need not lead to mass unemployment. Instead, they see these technologies as tools that will allow people to achieve more. People cooperating with machines, rather than competing against them (what Brynjolfsson refers to as “racing with machines”), can achieve more than either could achieve independently.
According to Alan Manning, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, history teaches us that labor markets are able to recover from the changes brought upon them by technological change. Manning argues,
“There will be people who have spent 20 or 30 years specialized in a job who will suddenly find that there is no demand for their skills any longer. They suffer big losses but in the long run … no young people go into those jobs, they go into something else and there is always something else to go into.”
But Brynjolfsson says society shouldn’t expect that people will simply adapt to the employment opportunities afforded to them by new technologies. To adjust to the labor upheaval that followed the industrial revolution, a long-term overhaul of our educational systems was essential, which is an approach that may need to be repeated. Brynjolfsson adds:
“If you look back to the first machine age, the vast majority of Americans worked in agriculture. Now it’s less than two percent. Those people [working in agriculture] didn’t simply become unemployed, they respelled. One of the best ideas that America had was mass primary education. That’s one of the reasons it became an economic leader. We put a lot of effort into reskilling people in these earlier eras. It was very costly and not simple, but ultimately it was successful.”
Brynjolfsson emphasizes that the commitment to education needs to continue. He also argues that lifelong learning will be essential for people to keep pace with the changing demands of roles constantly being reshaped by technology: “We have to reinvent education and reskilling … people are going to have to take it upon themselves to more aggres- sively learn these skills … it’s going to be a case of lifelong learning and continuously reskilling.”
To remain valuable, in this latest machine age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that people will need to focus on learning skills that are tricky for computers, such as ideation (the creation of new ideas), large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication.
Although the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields provide some of the most rewarding careers in America today, that may not be true tomorrow. As technology advances, the most valuable human skills, those that society and the economy may increasingly value more than any others, may be our deeply human interpersonal abilities: empathy, sensitivity, collaboration, story-telling, relationship building and leading.
According to the research firm Oxford Economics, employers’ top priorities already include relationship building, cultural sensitivity, brain- storming, co-creativity, and the ability to manage diverse employees— essentially, the right-brained skills of social interaction.
Meg Bear, Oracle group vice president, says, “Empathy is the critical 21st Century skill.”
As technology advances, the demand for these skills is only going to increase. Those who can build relationships, collaborate and lead— those who can engage clients with humor, energy, sensitivity, and generosity—will be tomorrow’s most sought after employees.
Summers may well be correct in referring to this as “the defining economic feature of our era.”
We need to be thinking about how humans will continue to add value in a world where computing power and the opportunities made possible by that computing power double every eighteen months. We need to think about how humans will “race with machines” and understand that it will require us to remain flexible, adaptable, and multidimensional.
Above all, it will require that we maintain and develop all of the qualities that make us uniquely human.