A while ago, I read the excellent book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McCafee, Race Against the Machine. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about automation, whether I’m looking at Google’s driverless cars or checking out at CVS through a self-service kiosk.
It’s a weird time to be alive and, if the common wisdom about robots these days is even half-accurate, this is the beginning. The next areas that most people think will be automated include legal work and healthcare. Shipping and manufacturing will continue to get Robotized, too.
That leaves us with an economy that increasingly relies on Creativity as a commodity. But, with new algorithms in place, even the writers and artists and musicians among us may start getting replaced.
The March of the Machines
Technology is universally claimed to be a force of good. At least by economists.
This is wrong. Technology is not good or evil. Humans are the moralizing force behind technology. And, in most cases, profit is what creates the tangible moral actions of humanity. That makes businesses look into ways to cut labor costs… but it also creates huge, huge pockets of opportunity for people.
Brynjolfsson and McCafee make two key arguments that shed light on technology’s impact on the job market today:
1. Economic productivity keeps on rising but, as opposed to years past, this does not coincide with a rise in available jobs.
2. Today, technology is moving too fast for workers to keep up.
Think about those automated, self-service kiosks you see at airports, grocery stores and convenience stores. Those used to be people. While they may transition to different fields of work in time, a lot of these locations have shut down opportunities practically overnight: you wheel in eight self-service kiosks, plunk them down and suddenly you don’t need eight employees at the cash register. You just need one to make sure everything keeps going smoothly.
But the overriding convenience – both for consumer and corporation – is far too tempting. Heck, I like being able to waltz into CVS without taking off my headphones.
Even the kiosks will be obsolete in ten years. When near-field communications (NFC) becomes the norm on smartphones, we’ll essentially be able to walk into a store and scan our own items and walk out. Retail outlets could very well become self-serve warehouses.
If you’re in the mood for some serious automation education – with a musical soundtrack – check out this five minute video by my band:
Automation doesn’t just mean robots. It means advanced, learning algorithms. Customer service departments can be entirely outsourced to robots that can mimic human speech and just as efficiently give good answers. Without losing their temper.
These algorithms are even learning how to write books. Phil Parker, a trained economist, has figured out how to create one that can easily write genre books like thrillers and romance, because they all have certain, predictable formulas.
Sports-writing, too, can be automated, because of the limited vocabulary and content in each article.
Parker explains that, by creating algorithms that “mimic the human mind,” he has created over one million books. It’s not quite the horror story that writers have in mind, of course – he points out that the algorithm can follow a formula, which could replace authors who are mostly copying and pasting content. Readers have referred to Parker’s books as “awful and frustrating.”
This kind of thing is in its infancy, but it shows an emerging encroachment of machines onto the knowledge economy, too. That’s when things are going to get weird.
I think that, if we approach this new economy the right way, robots can become tools instead of replacements. Just take a look at the video above. Just the fact that it exists – and can be made and distributed – shows that technology offers some extreme potential. It’s just a matter of keeping up.