MODERN computers can learn, they can listen, they can understand, and more importantly, they can create— a task they are performing at an extraordinary rate unseen by any human to date. Rather than relying mostly on physical labor and human presence to drive production, many industries are implementing technology that can perform the work of humans at lower costs and with less effort.
Defined as “the information processing in physical systems”, intelligence is arguably humanity’s most valuable resource. It is what drives the creation of new ideas and stimulates the growth of any successful economy. With that in mind, it isn’t a far stretch to state that computers are becoming a real threat to humanity’s monopoly on “intelligence”.
For centuries, humans have relied on an extreme cycle of trial and error to perfect the processes that would lead them to significant technological breakthroughs. Menial, repetitive, and dangerous jobs were the backbone of most large-scale economic powers. As people invented new technologies, other human work became necessary to verify their functionality. People were once the catalyst that decided whether or not products and services were fit for society. If a new invention was responsible for the death of thousands, you can expect that it would either be retired or someone would be hired to do a better job designing it. This inherent need for experimentation in the industry has, for centuries, been an integral feature of sustainable employment in most societies.
But this is no longer the standard. Amazon’s advanced algorithms can now predict a consumer purchase with extreme accuracy, including when you are most likely to make a purchase and the items you will be most likely to buy. As you would expect, the volume of data required to make calculations of this measure is unfathomably large. Just imagine the number of lifetimes a human would have to work if he expected to make the required calculations by hand.
Even if given a lifetime, chances are high that human intelligence would never be up to such an insurmountable challenge. The speed and quality of information processing are growing exponentially, unfortunately, humanity is not the force driving this growth. To understand how automation is impacting the workforce, let’s take a look back to past advancements in technology and how they changed the global workforce.
Though entirely different landscapes, this isn’t the first time automation became a point of concern for the economy and society as a whole. Humans are constantly on the verge of an industry disrupting breakthrough and the Industrial Revolution brought with it many of these breakthroughs. These advancements took the form of new machines that the working class was suddenly forced to adapt to, or otherwise face a high risk of a significantly lower quality of life.
The textiles industry was driven primarily by use of physical labor to process wool for millennia. This tradition was suddenly disrupted with the invention of the spinning wheel and loom, which allowed exponentially faster processing of cotton that would be used to make textiles. This is only one of the enormous number of industries impacted by the automation brought forth by the industrial revolution.
If you were a non-academic who wanted to support a family you had two options: go to the city and learn factory skills or afford a higher education that would warrant a specialized position. This transition into mechanical automation did eventually result in employment growth, but the change was not smooth and many found themselves helplessly unemployed.
Remember what I said about algorithms being implemented to predict your purchases before you even think about making them? That isn’t even the half of it. Corporate profits are now at an all-time high while total wages paid out are at an extremely low point and this is all widely the result of rapid advancement in the automation of jobs.
In the past humanity has been able to keep up with the race to create jobs that can supplement those lost to machines, but modern robots have made this task far less achievable. During the industrial revolution, it was only a matter of relocating to a city and developing a new (likely physical) skillset. Today, machines are now being created to take over every aspect of certain jobs—and not only in fields that are heavily reliant on physicality.
This would be fine if we were able to keep the technology from making us obsolete, but according to most analysts, it is no longer a matter of if technology will make us obsolete, instead, the question is when will it happen. Of course, humans won’t be entirely useless in the workforce, but we won’t hold a candle to the abilities of android technology. Machines’ newfound ability to learn isn’t limited to learning through interactions with people either.
High level computers currently have the functionality to teach themselves. Corporations worldwide are steadily gaining access to hardware that has computational power strong enough to process millions of images and sort them into categories based on almost any basic criteria input by the user. These machines “see” the images, check for the specified criteria, and record the details for reference, making for even faster processing the next time it needs to perform similar functions. Without even looking very closely, you can already see how the ripple effect this technology is creating throughout the world.
Google coined the term deep learning to define the process their developing technology uses to perform insurmountable tasks; such as documenting every individual street address in France using images captured through their Street View platform. This is a task that would have taken a decade to perform physically. Today, deep learning even has the capability of understanding negative sentiments and diagnosing disease. With so much functionality already in place, what can we expect from the future?
Human ingenuity is just not enough to protect these jobs from being performed by robots. Human ingenuity and originality may be powerful, but it also comes with many vulnerabilities. It isn’t hard to imagine the removal of us as an intermediary between machines and productivity. Humans often make mistakes that must be identified by machines, costing companies time and money.
Presuming that most companies are ideally looking to profit, the next logical step is to eliminate that waste. This implies that human intellectual work may, some day, be widely eliminated. A scary thought, considering that automation eliminating jobs that required intensive education and skill specialization was unfathomable to most intellectuals.
Unless an asteroid sends us back to the stone age, we will definitely continue improving our intelligent machines. This beckons the question of how we will welcome the next wave of labor-saving devices and what we will do after the end of human labor driving the economy. It also leaves the open-ended question of whether we will ever be able to cap this seemingly infinite growth and what will happen to the jobs if we don’t. The future depicted in science fiction may seem impossible, but people are slowly starting to understand that a robot run society is probably not very far off from reality.
As you can see, this technological surge is only beginning. With humanity being more interconnected than ever, the ability of the global population of scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators to adapt to and advance the world’s available knowledge has grown exponentially. The physical components of computers are getting smaller every year, so the costs of data processing capability are shrinking at a parallel. These and a multitude of other complex factors dictate that there is basically nothing stopping technology from overwhelming the economy and it would be naive not to start preparing for this change.
As human labor inevitably becomes a relic in most industries, societies will be hard pressed to discover the best ways to maintain their people’s purchasing power and stability. The burden of adapting to these changes will fall widely on the government, but civilians will still face a greater pressure than ever to make due with the massive paradigm shift created by these uncontrollable circumstances.
If you haven’t already come to this conclusion on your own, the answer to the question of how soon automation will reshape the industrial workforce is already apparent—it has already begun. Though it is uncertain that these deadlines will be met, many automobile manufacturers have already released timelines detailing how they expect the integration of driverless cars to unfold.
Elon Musk expects that his first fully autonomous driverless cars will be approved for use by the year 2021 and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick expects the Uber fleet to be entirely driverless by 2040. If you look only at recent years, automation has already changed the landscape for every single industry on this planet. The Guardian stated that robots are likely to eliminate 6% of all U.S. jobs by the year 2021.
Fortune magazine even expects 80% of customer interactions to be built without any human interactions! The progress is seemingly unstoppable and like with most social issues not very many people are showing a high level of concern for coming up with solutions. But just to reassure you, we won’t have to worry about a shocking global sweep of robots suddenly swiping the rugs from beneath our feet in a dystopian display of Terminator-like robot dominance.