Throughout all of human history, innovation and technology raised standards of living and made living easier for humans. Machines and methods, processes and equipment increased productivity, outputting more per hour than a human without the tools could. It opened up greater opportunities for innovators to further build upon these inventions and created newer, often less dangerous and more rewarding, jobs than before.
For the majority of our time on Earth, humans worked in agriculture. Plowing, planting, harvesting, this was the main method of work in the modern sense of the word. As agriculture began being taken over by machines as well, we transitioned to factory work, operating machines that were big, stupid, but efficient. Finally, as automation became more widespread, humans shifted into service jobs, fulfilling a role automation could not fill: human warmth and service.
Now, this article isn’t meant to scaremonger you, the reader, into thinking you aren’t going to have jobs in the future, or that the robot overlords will surely come for you. Technology simply isn’t there yet, and if you’re a teenager now, there is still a chance that low-skill jobs will not be filled by robots. However, we must realize that innovation is creating less jobs now than it is taking away, and as population grows and standards of living are expected to be stable and high, this is a large problem that we are not prepared for.
The word ‘industry’ traces its roots to the Latin industria, meaning ‘diligence’. It referred first to the development and popularization of mechanical hands to replace human hands in production. However, the rise of this type of machinery was fine for society: more specialized in engineering, in management, in research, paving the way for the next iteration of innovative practices.
Today, the titans of twentieth century industry such as automobiles, are no longer transforming our way of life drastically. Less humans are required, and while self-driving automobiles are fine, they do not create the drastic number of jobs needed to keep up with population growth.
But wait, what about the Internet? Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Alibaba dominate the news every day. These companies surely are the next face of innovation and save society from collapse of jobs, correct.
Even though the Internet is marvelous and creates incredible opportunities for people, it simply is not creating enough jobs to compensate for the ones they’re destroying or to compensate for population growth. We are today at an age when news is becoming less relevant in the traditional sense, traditional shops are becoming more scarce, and services are rendered more useful virtually. This is all because of the Internet and the innovations that came along with it.
Comparative companies are making more revenue with less employees than several decades ago. There simply is no need to hire workers when all they would do is lower the overall average productivity and waste corporate cash on salaries, benefits, and insurance.
Machines that Learn
If the previous section on the Information Age made you sad, prepare yourself. There’s a new type of machine that’s only getting smarter, machines that analyze and break down tasks into small, stupid steps that they can accomplish, and can learn from their mistakes.
This is called machine learning, and it is part of a second wave of Information Age technologies that will destroy our current concept of society and wages.
These new machines don’t make mistakes, but they don’t have to be perfect: they just have to be better than you. A San Francisco company several years ago was able to cut out middle management by using project management software, which first decided what humans to keep and which to cut. After that, the software monitored human behavior until it was able to begin replicating their tasks completely, eventually replacing human workers. It reduced costs, slashed benefits, and saved the company money: and that’s a trade companies will take every day of the week.
If this doesn’t sound bad to you, it should. It effectively makes building the robots and automation the few stable occupations that would be secure from this loss of employment over the coming decades.
We Need to Move, Now.
In the United States alone, job generation has grown to a standstill and simply does not keep up with population growth as well as immigration from foreign countries. In a country that needs 150,000 new jobs every year to simply keep up with its new graduates, this is a bad sign: it will soon affect standards of living and the economy as our whole. Modern economies are built on the premise that people consume, but when there’s too much product but not enough consumers...things will take a turn for the worse.
Now, it’s not all dark and gloom. Though we have to move very quickly to brace ourselves for the different kind of innovation that is creeping over the horizon, it’s not completely implausible that humans, like before, would be able to adapt. We might be able to raise standards of living and lift people out of poverty and inequality with ideas such as a Universal Basic Income. We might be able to eradicate the social, ethnic, and racial divisions that have kept us apart for so long.
However it may turn out, one thing is for certain: the Information Age will change things drastically, and we have to be prepared.
And my personal advice is this: if you're the one building the robots, they can't replace you.