By Fi Bendall
We might not know where technologies like AI and automation are taking us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s to a place without jobs. Or to the kind of world portrayed in films like The Terminator.
After all, not many of us grew up thinking we’d become SEO analysts or UX designers, let alone a bitcoin trader, lead machine learning engineer or social media manager, but these are some of the jobs that have emerged from the digital transformation of the past couple of decades.
Then there are the jobs that have been changed to varying degrees by the technology that now helps us do these jobs better or more productively. From teaching to medicine, technology has enabled us to perform our work in more accurate and often more creative ways than before. Technology has allowed us to create value in new ways for the people we serve — patients, students, clients, customers and so on.
The nature of large-scale transformation is that a host of professions and jobs often become obsolete, but at the same time new ones are introduced. We’ve seen that process throughout history, from the agricultural age through to the industrial age and into our current technological age. Fewer blacksmiths, but more motor mechanics.
We don’t always know what these jobs are going to be though — which is troubling for a lot of people, many of whom are either invested in saving existing jobs or refuse to believe new ones will be created.
Most of the coverage about the possible consequences of AI is focusing on the potential for mass unemployment. There was a similar sentiment around when the computer was starting to make its way into our workplaces and homes.
As this article by American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin from a 1995 issue of Mother Jones put it: “Will there be a job for me in the new Information Age?” Rifkin’s answer was an almost certain “no”.
“Sophisticated computers, robots, telecommunications, and other Information Age technologies are replacing human beings in nearly every sector. Factory workers, secretaries, receptionists, clerical workers, salesclerks, bank tellers, telephone operators, librarians, wholesalers, and middle managers are just a few of the many occupations destined for virtual extinction.”
Rifkin also pointed to the percentage of Americans living under the poverty line as proof of the dystopia to come: “Millions of others have slipped quietly out of the economy and into an underclass no longer counted in the permanent employment figures. A staggering 15 percent of the population now lives below the official poverty line.”
That figure of 15 percent has hardly changed during the intervening 20 years of massive technological change brought about by the internet age, with the official rate at 13.5 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates. In fact, the figure has been fairly steady at between 10-15 percent since the mid-1960s.
Rifkin has managed to make a decent career for himself out of playing Henny Penny and telling people about how the sky is falling because of technology. (He’s now an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel among other things.) In 2005, he was still telling people the worst was to come, basically reiterating what he had been saying ten years before:
“Even if you retrained the entire workforce of Europe so that they would be qualified for these high-tech jobs, there would never be enough work in this sector to absorb mass labor. That’s true all over the world,” Rifkin opined in Der Spiegel.
Rifkin is far from alone in his pessimism. Even the likes of Elon Musk, Jack Ma and Professor Stephen Hawking have all expressed grave concerns about the impact of AI and automation on not only jobs but the very fabric of society itself. There have also been a spate of books about the subject, including Martin Ford’s ominously titled Rise of the Robots.
While it would be foolish to discount the very many doubts and worries people have about AI, robots and automation, it’s worth keeping in mind that humans are adaptable and often very entrepreneurial in the face of even massive change and disruption. As well as the direct consequences we might be able to model from the introduction of new technologies, there are also the unintended consequences. Think of the way the introduction of mass automobile ownership led to the growth of big shopping malls and drive-thru fast food chains like McDonald’s.
New technologies tend to create new platforms and ecosystems within which entrepreneurs look to create new value propositions. Think of the the proliferation of apps in the App Store over the past decade because of the iPhone. It might not be an example of mass employment in the way we think of traditional manufacturing industries, but app development has become just one of many career pathways in ICT. Again, there is a small but thriving employment ecosystem within social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn for everyone from software developers to content creators.
But beyond these digital sectors there is also the way technology tends to change our habits, behaviours and lifestyle choices. The health and wellness industry is growing rapidly, in part because people have realised the sedentary nature of office work or working at a computer is bad for their health.
The reality is that it is extremely difficult to make accurate predictions about where technology will take us in terms of employment or what the broader ramifications might be for society.
Someone with a slightly less dystopian and more level-headed view of all this is Warren Buffett.
In his characteristically plain spoken manner, Buffett says automation could lead to more rather than fewer opportunities.
“If one person could push a button and turn out everything we turn out now, is that good for the world or bad for the world?” asks Buffett. “You would free up all kinds of possibilities for everything else.”
As always, it will be the people willing to dream a little and do things a bit differently who will create the jobs of tomorrow. And while AI has come a long way, I’m not sure they’ve invented an entrepreneurial robot yet. That’s still something humans do pretty well.