First, the bad news: employment levels are lower than they were a decade ago, and those jobs aren’t coming back. Blame automation for much of the lackluster job growth seen in the current economy. In fact, there soon will be few jobs that machines won’t be able to do just as well as humans.
That’s the sobering prediction made by MIT professor Andrew McAfee, co-author of Rage Against the Machine, at his recent TED talk. McAfee predicts that machines and software will be touching every job — from knowledge workers to journalists to even truck drivers. At this point, he adds, we’re only at the beginning stages of the digitization of jobs. “We ain’t seen nothing yet,” he says.
Self-driving vehicles may put millions of truck drivers out of business. Articles and reports generated by algorithms take human writers out of the equation. Language translation is now a free, online service.
“Most knowledge workers are actually generalists,” McAfee points out. “What they do is they sit on top of a very large body of expertise and knowledge, and they use that to react on the fly to unpredictable demands — and that’s very difficult to automate.” However, hook an interactive, natural-language service such as Apple’s Siri intelligent assistant to IBM’s Watson computer, and all bets are off. “Siri is far from perfect,” he says. “But we should also keep in mind Moore’s law trajectory. In six years, they’re not going to be two times or four times better — they’ll be 16 times better than they are right now.”
Now, the good news: There are silver linings to this relentless growth in automation and smart systems, McAfee says. The current wave of automation is likely one of the most profound developments shaping human history — more so than wars, empires or plagues. “None of these of these things have mattered very much” when compared to the impact of the industrial revolution. “There has been one story, one development in human history that bent the curve, and it is a technology story. The steam engine and other associated technologies of the industrial revolution changed the world and influenced history so much, they made mockery out of everything that had come before. They did this by infinitely increasing the power of our muscles, overcoming the limitations of our muscles.”
Now, that same infinite power of machines is “overcoming the limitations of our individual brains, and infinitely multiplying our mental power,” McAfee says.
Technology is a great equalizer, empowering people from all backgrounds and on all continents to improve their lives. “Economies don’t run on energy, they don’t run on capital, they don’t run on labor. Economies run on ideas. So the work of innovation, the power of coming up with new ideas, is some of the most powerful and fundamental work we can do as a society.”
Previously, the only people who had access to resources are those who may have graduated from elite institutions, “who are then put them into other elite institutions,” McAfee explains. “And then we would wait for the innovation.”
Now, technology makes it possible for innovation to come from all corners of the globe. Nobody cares where innovators grew up, or “where they went to school or what they look like,” he says. “All they care about is the quality of their work. The work of innovation is becoming more open, more inclusive, more transparent, and more merit based.”
McAfee believes, however, that automation is creating new opportunities unheard of in human history. “Yeah, the droids are taking our jobs,” he muses. “But focusing on that fact is missing the point entirely. We are freed up to do other things.”