Hi, I’m a robot, and I’m here to take your job

Hi, I’m a robot, and I’m here to take your job


In September 1989, GE Chairman Jack Welch flew to Bangalore, India for a breakfast meeting with an Indian delegation that included Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The purpose of his trip was to sell airplane engines and medical equipment to India, but the meeting took an interesting twist along the way.

Rather than buying what GE had to sell, the Prime Minister Gandhi proposed that GE buy software from India. After looking at the amazingly low labor costs, Welch decided instead to outsource portions of its business starting with Bangalore’s first call center. This short meeting led to an outsourcing revolution that would dramatically transform both the Indian and U.S. economies.

We are now on the verge of another business transformation, but this time workers are not being replaced by low cost labor in other countries. Rather, they are being replaced by machines.

Science fiction writers have led us to believe that humanoid robots, with all the nuanced skills and talents of humans would be walking among us today. But rather than some Stepford Wife-like creation appearing at our door and telling us they were taking our jobs, the true job-stealing culprits have been far more subtle, appearing under the guise of automation, without any clear relationship between the machines and the people they’re replacing.

Hidden inside this menacing movement to displace labor is a far more complicated shifting of social order. What appears on the outside to be little more than executives with blinders chasing higher profits may instead be humankind’s biggest opportunity.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sketching out ideas on how to think about redirecting the energies of people. Here are some thoughts on how this may unfold.

The Displacement Myth

One common fallacy is that people are being replaced by machines. The reality is that machines don’t work without humans. A more accurate description is that a large number of people are being replaced by a smaller number of people using machines.

Automated machines, robots, and other devices are designed to make people more efficient, but there is never a 100% replacement ratio.

Driverless car, as example, will replace the need for drivers but will still require maintenance and repair people, operations managers, logistics people for dealing with failing vehicles, customer service people, etc.

Pilotless planes will still need ground crews, station chiefs, maintenance crews, and more.

Teacherless schools will still need course designers, on-site coaches, software teams in the background, and much more.

Even workerless businesses will still require owners and support staff to direct the efforts of the business.

Yes, it may be conceivable that the human replacement ratio could, on occasion, be dramatic, pushed as high as 1,000 to 1. But most of the time it will be far less. At the same time, a super efficient society will have the ability to accomplish far more than ever in the past.

Moving into an Era of Super Efficient Humans

Today’s workers are being replaced by far more efficient workers who are capable of leveraging machines and other forms of automation.

Rather than having someone show up with a magical machine under their arm that can do everything you currently do, the machines I’m referring to are a combination of computers, software, communication networks, automated devices, mobile apps, and the Internet. Perhaps there’s even a robot or two thrown into the mix.

Low skilled workers of the past are being replaced by those capable of operating a myriad of software and devices, born with the tech instincts to master whatever new machinery, system, or technology gets thrown into the mix.

The bottom line is that the work being done today will require far fewer workers in the future.

So what is it that will fill the labor void? What are the businesses, projects, and opportunities that will open up once the next round of job shedding begins?

The Work of the Future 

"To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time." - Leonard Bernstein

Rest assured, there will always be more problems than we have solutions for. Since virtually every solution generates additional problems, the area of problem-solving alone has a seemingly infinite number of opportunities that lie ahead.

In addition to fixing our current ailments, many will opt instead to pursue a higher calling, and these will include a myriad of possibilities.

  • Cures – In the medical world we need to step past treating the ailments and focus on long-term cures. These include cures for cancer, aides, MS, epilepsy, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and many more. Some will even focus on ending human aging altogether, an area with strong near-term potential.
  • Natural Disasters - We have an obligation to somehow mitigate the impact of natural disasters. This will include efforts to stop forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, hail, and flooding to name just a few.
  • Correcting Deviant Behavior – Many among us go through traumatizing events that cause personalities to skew far from society’s norm. Others have brain defects that cause outrageous behavior. To some, these are the problems most deserving of their time and attention.
  • Colonizing Other Planets – Many believe that the human race cannot survive if all humans only live on one planet. Traveling to distant worlds has been the lifelong dream of many and living in a super efficient society will bring that dream ever closer to reality.
  • Ending Extreme Poverty – Too much of humanity is still slipping between the cracks. A fully engaged world puts everyone to work, not just the gifted few.
  • Discovery & Exploration – Even with all our scientific advancements we still don’t know what’s inside the earth or what gravity is. At the same time we are discovering new species of fish, animals, insects, and birds on a regular basis. When it comes to discovery and exploration, we’ve only scratched the surface.
  • Trailblazing Firsts – Few of us remember the 2nd person to set foot on the moon, or the 2nd person to invent the airplane, or the 2nd one to run a mile in under 4 minutes. We place a disproportionate amount of attention on those who go first, and there are a lot of “firsts” that still need to be accomplished.
  • Extending Human Abilities and Capabilities – Human awareness ends at the outer reaches of our capabilities. We have little understanding of distant universes, sub-atomic particles, and other dimensions. Extending human abilities and capabilities will open doors in places we didn’t know doors existed.

Final Thoughts 

No, the robot knocking at your front door is not the boogeyman that so many are dreading. It’s easy to look around and see what exists today, but the true visionaries are looking at what’s missing. And “what’s missing” is where the real opportunities lie.

With today’s automations, jobs are disappearing faster than ever before in history. The only way to compensate for this is to build new businesses and new industries from scratch.

Several studies have shown that every job lost will be replaced many times over with emerging new industries. What’s less clear are the systems needed to fully leverage the opportunities as quickly as they occur.

A fully automated society is a powerful one, and the country with the most responsive systems to adjust to these new realities, and leverage change quickly will rise in prominence on the world stage.

Sometimes that which we fear most has a way of becoming our biggest asset.


By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



18 Responses

  1. spikosauropod

    Thomas, you have basically invoked the Luddite fallacy. But I am not telling you anything you don’t already know.

    As I have pointed out before, the jobs computers and robots will eliminate will be lower end jobs. The jobs they create will require considerable creativity, talent, and intelligence. Moreover, they will continue to replace low end jobs until the low end jobs become the high end jobs and the jobs left for humans require enormous intellectual ability.

    Finally, the computers and robots will replace all but the highest end jobs…jobs formerly reserved for geniuses of every bent. There might be work for the handful of scientists and engineers who have traditionally led industry, but not for anyone who would not otherwise be mentioned in history books.

    And all this will take place over the next 20 years. I am quite confident that no one born after 2010 will have any chance of being employed in the traditional sense of the word.

    On top of this is an increasing trend in narcissistic behavior and a feeling among ordinary people that they are entitled. They will not be willing to put in the extra work to remain employed once the path gets too steep. They will vote for politicians who will redistribute wealth in the form of basic incomes. We will become a vast welfare state.

    It is not clear what all these people who do not have to work and have never had to work will do with their time. If history is any clue, it won’t be pretty. We are moving into the era of a vast welfare state. I would like to see it as an era of a vast leisure class, but for some reason that image won’t stick in my consciousness. I see bizarre pastimes, idle hands, drugs, and wireheading. I see people demanding more and more while contributing less and less.

    Maybe you just caught me on an off day. Perhaps you have words to allay my fears.

  2. FuturistSpeaker


    I will have to disagree with you on this one. Technology has never been that efficient in the past, and with the changing nature of technology, it will mean that machines and automation will have to be fast adapting as the environment its being created in.

    Machines and automation work well for highly repeatable tasks, but require far more complicated solutions for one-off activities. Here are some examples:

    1.) Consumers are driven by novelty. Are women simply going to stop buying purses and shoes because someone has invented the “perfect purse” and the “perfect shoe?”
    2.) How often do you want to eat the same meal, cooked with the same ingredients?
    3.) I’ve just stepped on the scale and decided I need to lose weight. How do we automate dieting and weight loss, knowing that most people hate to be told what to do, especially by a machine?
    4.) Even the simple act of cleaning your house requires thousands of tiny decision-making moments that are hard to build into a machine.
    5.) Some time in the future we will transition from national power grids to regional ones, and the national power grid will need to be dismantled. How do we automate dismantling the national power grid?
    6.) Flying drones will enable us to send packages instantly across town. But flying drones have enormous potential for abuse, and the government will likely demand licenses, activity logs, and constant monitoring. Whenever technology becomes too efficient, the government will begin to add friction to it to slow it down.

    When people first dreamed of having a flying car, it was a concept easy for people to wrap their mind around. But to actually create one has become a far more difficult problem to solve than anyone ever imagined.

    In a similar vein, when Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test in the early 1950s, no one could have imagined that still 60 years later that we’d still be wrestling with it.

    And still one more example, when Dennis Gabor developed the concept of holography in the late 1940s, few people would have anticipated it taking more than 70 years for technology to match his original vision.

    Don’t get me wrong, automation will displace many jobs over the coming years, but not with anything close to the efficiency most are imagining.


  3. JB Vick

    I once asked a genius who was working on a PHD in AI “what people would do in the future when they didnt have to work” and he replied simply “they will do what they want to do”.
    So shouldnt we focus on creating ways to make people want to solve the big issues you mention? With props to another genius Dale Carnegie, creating the “want” is how you get people to do things.

  4. Jeremy

    “Colonizing Other Planets” is a disaster for other planets. We take more than we give. Eventually we will desolate the entire solar system of all it’s resources. All the other earth animals should have killed humans when they had the chance thousands of years ago. What is the end goal for human civilisation? Survive at all costs – just like always.

  5. Jeremy

    Robots won’t create religions and will overcome human weaknesses. They’ll be smarter than we could ever imagine.

  6. Dan

    This topic is becoming more common as companies are automating jobs more than rehiring if possible as the economy slowly improves. They all seem to come from the perspective of all of us making this difficult transition together, like a big family dealing with the plant shutting down. All we need is more job retraining and more time for art, music, and a life of creative leisure that uplifts mankind.

    It makes me think of an increased risk for wars and a need for world government.

    What I have not seen and would like to request is an article that discusses the competition and probable friction between countries because of this technology. If a rich entity can build a system that is the most efficient means of production in the whole world, why can’t it develop a monopoly for the whole world? This is clone wars of production. This could make Chinese solar panel market flooding look like child’s play.

    What is the limit for the number of producing robots that any society is allowed? How is that going to be decided?

  7. Ian

    A world without work? Sounds like Heaven to me!

  8. Oh well shut up robot while I watch the sunrise and you grow me healthy vegetables to keep healthy…dumb robot !!!
    We just must make sure the capitalist corporations die out with the jobs, and everyone shares equally in a resource based economy… NO MORE THIEVES, whether “legally” on the stock exchange gambling with peoples lives or illegally through “standard” crime…

  9. Gavin

    In 30 years computers will be around a million times more powerful/cheaper than today, we cant predict accurately what will occur but disruption is inevitable. Hopefully the far too negative anti socialist propaganda will die off because socialism is democracy for everybody not just the haves and want to have more crowd. Production capability will be off the scale in the coming decades because of autonomous robots and algorithms working 24/7.

    Are peoples wants endless or will having their basic needs met plus a bit more for fun be enough. I think so, then other things should become the main issue like healthcare, no debt, mental health, family, friendships, pets, hobbies, interests, self education. I hope so anyway.

  10. latenight

    Jesus people will swallow any old feel good koolaid. My god, how stupid do you have to be not to realize that on a planet with 7 billion and counting, the coming full automation of just about everything will have DRASTIC consequences for most of the world. I guess according to the author and most of the commenters, only educated, creative and lucky geniuses count for anything, and will be the only humans numbered among the survivors of the coming “robot” world. Remember, business/corporations are ALWAYS about ever increasing profits, not about people or “creating a nicer world full of leisure time” What a crock! Answer me if you dare: what will happen to the BILLIONS of “extra unnecessary humans?” Think!!! Wake up!!!! Laws limiting “robots” are needed NOW to protect the “unworthy” low skilled masses of humans, who have every bit of right to live as the rich geniuses. And lest you think it is not “your” problem (those poor lazy bastards simply get what they deserve, right? Like working two jobs, no vacations, no healthcare, yeah those useless eaters are simply whiners on easy street…), rest assured once AI is fully incorporated and takes on a life of its own, you too, will be history.

  11. Chthonic

    Spikasauropod has hit the nail on the head with his vision of the future, although I’m not quite so sure on the accuracy of the timeline.

    The situation reminds me very much of what happened with the Roman empire. They expanded their territory of the empire using a combination of opportunity for the disadvantaged and ruthless acquisitiveness and at the end of it all, created a bloated empire with the people packed into cities, living off of bread and circuses. We already have a movement to create such a world society in the form of technocracy movements such as the Zeitgeist Movement. This writer predicts that a model for such a technocratic society where everything is “free” will be attempted in the near future (5-10 years) and will most probably involve the poorest continent: Africa.

    One thing I might mention is that I find the above conversations to be intensely and questionably human-focused. I think that we forget that our civilization also includes animals and plants. This exclusive concern for humanity at the expense of all others will probably be most on parade in the world legal system and will increasingly come into conflict with animal rights activists. While many humans will certainly be put out of work, more and more animals are finding their way into the workforce in the most unexpected ways.

    The problems of narcissism and entitlement in a society without need of work will cause catastrophe if left unchecked; the answer to such a problem is rather obviously a world spiritual movement suitable to creating a sustainable city environment. This writer believes that such a spiritual tradition has perhaps, already been created, but that there are few adherents to it.

    This writer would also like to point out that the there is almost limitless potential, provided by science and technology, for humans, communities, other life forms, and machines to recombine themselves in almost limitless different forms creating the possibility for new ways of existing and being and that this path may be far more attractive to a large segment of humanity than living in technocratically managed mega-cities.

  12. Glenn Mungra

    According to this article about the McKinsey Report: “A dozen potentially disruptive technologies could deliver as much as $33 trillion in economic value around the globe by 2025″ – See more at: http://data-informed.com/mckinsey-report-big-data-at-center-of-disruptive-technologies/#sthash.Jh2V271T.dpuf

  13. FuturistSpeaker


    Thanks for pointing that out. That’s a critical point to consider when thinking about the “glass-half-empty” view of job loss.


  14. Ay Bee

    The whole idea of automating everything is ridiculous! For the most part, much of the systems being devised are failing us (ie. electricity smart meters, transport ticketing, automated renewal programs etc). While machines and computers may be aiding the creation process and accelerating the provision of goods and services (many of which are useless consumer items) at the same time we are however losing our ability to ‘craft’ things by hand – hence the increased desire to own hand made items of yesteryear. In the not-too-distant automated reality, as projected by leading futurists everywhere, what exactly will all the millions of people, whose jobs are replaced by machines/ robots etc, actually do with their time? What do we stand to lose and what will we gain by the extensive automation of society? As I see it automation will only lead to an increase in the pervasive nature of governments and those industries wishing to monitor and further take control of our everyday existence.

  15. Ay Bee

    PS. Latenight is 100% spot on!

  16. William Stewart

    With the expectation that IT laborers are accused of the undertaking of actualizing said computerization innovation, I don’t suspect it will ever work fine to take away our occupations. Why? Such a framework will be unreliable to the point that the business will essentially see no worth in it…i ensure it. “Definitely, sorry…the server for the new robotized Help Desk framework only went down once more. Cheerfully when it returns up, it won’t be in Russian dialect mode once more.”

  17. hello there

    I’m deaf I can’t talk and I can’t hear. who need help with the robotics… I wanted I’m look for find a good work job. I mean “real no fools, lies, other something bad words…. no work job for you.” right? uh just I ask you that’s all. yea. not even they people have to work job mean good… oh hey wait someone they have too many other real for work with robots (many more different something) and some have they who need help … people speak (talk and sign-hand deaf) I wanted learn how with that. but not yet I mean I’m not done with math, lab other. not yet I have wait for next new year 2015 May 5 or June 8. I hope I wanted see that. real robots for future.

  18. Ian

    One thing people can do with their time is learn how to become articulate again in writing….you have to read books in order to achieve that. There are no shortcuts.
    Otherwise you cannot communicate properly.

    However, to my main point:

    I make things. I used to make things for a living, currently I have no need to do so because my economic circumstances mean that I no longer need to work for money.

    I still make things.

    I make things minimising the use of modern industrial tools and technology. I make things where the involvement of a human being is evident.

    In the manufacture of things, quality is often geared to an idea of perfection.

    This perfection is assessed in many ways, not least of which are form and function.

    Industrial and quasi-industrial processes can achieve a higher level of both of these, but are they necessary, and why are they desirable?

    On what terms are they assessed? I prefer the look of buildings, for example, made by craftsmen from natural materials and not created in factories from artificial materials. I am happier living in them.

    Form may be allied with “finish”.
    Function may be allied with the provision of many more
    facilities than actually required in order to “market” an item, and in order in facilitate “obsolescence”.

    A revaluation of human effort is required.

    Ultimately, a worker will be paid for “no-work” provided
    that “no-work” cannot be achieved by robot/AI.

    We need to bend our heads around that one, but that is where freedom in its real sense lies.

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