In March, when Facebook announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, they not only put a giant stamp of approval on the technology, but they also triggered an instant demand for virtual reality designers, developers, and engineers.

Virtual reality professionals were nowhere to be found on the list of hot skills needed for 2014, but they certainly will be for 2015.

The same was true when Google and Facebook both announced the acquisition of solar powered drone companies Titan and Ascenta respectively. Suddenly we began seeing a dramatic uptick in the need for solar-drone engineers, drone-pilots, air rights lobbyists, global network planners, analysts, engineers, and logisticians.

Bold companies making moves like this are instantly triggering the need for talented people with skills aligned to grow with these cutting edge industries.

Whether its Tesla Motors announcing the creation of a fully automated battery factory; Intel buying the wearable tech company Basic Science; Apple buying Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics; or Google’s purchase of Dropcam, Nest, and Skybox, the business world is forecasting the need for radically different skills than colleges and universities are preparing students for.

In these types of industries, it’s no longer possible to project the talent needs of business and industry 5-6 years in advance, the time it takes most universities to develop a new degree program and graduate their first class. Instead, these new skill-shifts come wrapped in a very short lead-time, often as little as 3-4 months.

Last month, Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, announced his solution, the NanoDegree, where short-course training is carefully aligned with hiring companies, and virtually everyone graduating within the initial demand period is guaranteed a job.

Udacity’s NanoDegrees are very similar to the Micro College programs being developed by the DaVinci Institute that can rapidly respond to swings in the corporate training marketplace. More about DaVinci’s Micro College plans in the coming weeks.

Here’s why NanoDegrees and Micro Colleges are about to become the hottest of all the hot topics for career-shifting people everywhere.

At the Future Job Summit hosted by Peter Diamandis

The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment

Last weekend, Peter Diamandis, founder of Singularity University and the X-Prize Foundation, invited me to a 2-day summit along with some of Silicone Valley’s best thinkers to discuss future jobs and the growing dangers of technological unemployment.

In Peter’s way of thinking, even though we are headed toward a world of abundance, having a significant loss of jobs due to robots and automation has the potential of causing a near term backlash.

Every time 10,000 people are laid off their jobs, it creates a glass-half-full-half-empty kind of dilemma.

The layoffs increase our pool of available human capital, but we are left with the question of who, what, when, where, and how to apply this available manpower. Our challenge, designing a social system for reintegrating these “dangling particles of talent,” will be to match personal interests, aptitude, and training to the mix in a way that efficiently leverages and empowers people.

During this transition period, a very real danger exists in the form of protests and repercussion from displaced workers. Those who blame their deteriorating job prospects and overall loss of opportunity on automation, could indeed wage some form of war against technology.

Taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, and even airline pilots will eventually be supplanted by driverless forms of transportation. Construction workers, craftsmen, janitors, accountants, bankers, and retailers all run a very real risk of having their positions automated out of existence.

Recent protests and skirmishes involving Google’s employee buses could easily escalate into something worse and form the basis of a new-age Luddite rallying cry to slow down, even undermine, our future. With a combination of techno-sabotaging confrontations and pushing all the right labor-agenda political buttons, the fear of an unknown robot-infested future could take center stage as a rallying cry for top-of-the-mind policy-setting criteria, hampering, possibly even reversing, many of the recent advances we’ve made.

Even darker scenarios could play out as modern-day digital uprisings spread like wildfires turning the speed and capabilities of tech against itself. The damage caused by a single individual could be tantamount to an anti-tech ice age spreading its influence throughout the entire world.

The same Internet that delivers our news and heightens out awareness of the world around us can also be used to poison people’s thinking creating an anti-technology agenda that frames the conversation for the rest of the world.

Framing the Conversation First

No it’s not possible for the human race to actually “run out of work.” But the kind of skills needed to perform the “new work” will indeed change and without some form of retraining intervention, the techno-illiterates run a real danger of having their prospects permanently compromised.

The re-skilling process is only as bright as the glimmers of hope and well-illuminated career path at the end of each participant’s transitionary tunnel.

The assumption that low-skilled janitors, drivers, and dockworkers cannot be retrained for more technical work is not only false, but the first of many social objections that will need to be overcome.

Rapid re-skilling programs designed to build individual competencies, one micro-capability at a time, coupled with hands-on apprenticeships and on-demand tutorial support, are all pieces of the learning environments that will be needed to elevate the caliber of workers to meet the vital workforce needs of tomorrow.

Ironically, the STEM talents that have prevented most of these workers from landing today’s better paying jobs will be automated into the AI, artificial intelligence, operating systems of tomorrow’s most ubiquitous equipment and therefore play a less significant role.

Placing Humans First

Our economy is based on people. Humans are the buying entities, the connectors, the decision-makers, and the trade partners that make our economy work.

Without humans there can be no economy. So when it comes to automation:

  • A person with a toolbox is more valuable than a person without one.
  • A person with a computer is more valuable than a person without one.
  • A person with a robot or a machine is more valuable than a person without one.

Automation does not happen simply for the sake of automation. It’s intended to benefit people.

If we only look at what automation will eliminate, we’ll be viewing the world through a glass-half-empty lens.

Though we have a hard time understanding the exact role of tomorrow’s worker bees, even our most sophisticated machines in the future will require human owners, human controllers, human customers, and human oversight when things go wrong.

Disruptive vs. Constructive Technologies

In the 1700s, nearly 97% of employment in the U.S. was related to agriculture. Today, that number hovers around 2%.

This means that over the past two centuries, over 95% of all ag workers were displaced by technology.

Any industry today that is being forced to do more with less is working through a similar process of having their workers automated out of existence.

All industries form a bell curve

As with everything in life, all industry lifecycles form a bell curve with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s important to understand that all industries will eventually end and get replaced by something else.

Usually the starting point can be traced to an invention or discovery such as Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone or Henry Bessemer’s process for making cheap steel in large volumes. The end comes when a new industry replaces the old, like calculators replacing the slide rule.

At some point along the way, every industry will experience a period of peak demand for their goods or service.

Many industry are entering the downside of the curve

Many of our largest industries today are entering the second half of the bell curve.

Leading indicators that industries are entering their top-of-the-curve midlife crisis are when the disruptors, a growing cadre of startups and their process-altering technologies begin attacking key profit centers.

Prior to reaching peak demand for these goods or service, often several decades earlier, industries will experience a period of peak employment.

Peak Steel

Using “Peak Steel” as an example, the peak demand for steel is projected to occur sometime around 2024. This is when composite materials will gain enough of a foothold and the overall demand for steal will begin to decline.

Yet, peak employment for the steel industry happened in the 1970s. The 521,000 employed in 1974 was automated down to a mere 151,000 by 2000 even though the amount of steel produced is now more than triple that of the 1970s.

In this context, any reduction in employment is a lead indicator of an industry cresting the bell curve, foretelling a downturn in the overall demand for goods or services, as the industry enters its waning years.

Finding the Seeds of Opportunity in Automation

According to a May 2011 study by the McKinsey Global Institute titled “Internet matters: The Net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs, and prosperity,” the Internet has accounted for 21% of GDP growth over the previous five years.

They also concluded the Internet is a key catalyst for job creation. Among 4,800 small and medium-size enterprises surveyed, the Internet created 2.6 jobs for each one lost to technology-related efficiencies.

We are now transitioning from room-size automation that only large companies could afford, to desktop automation that allows small and even one-person businesses to be part of.

In much the same way that the 1985 Apple LaserWriter gave birth to desktop publishing, the 2010 MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic 3D printer gave birth to desktop manufacturing.

Final Thoughts

As with every 12-step program, everything begins with acknowledging we have a problem. But the problem today is miniscule in comparison to the problems that lay ahead.

Matching displaced worker’s interests with the right opportunities for retraining, apprenticeships, and jobs will be a delicate balancing act at best.

The dangers of lapsing into low-challenge solutions that undercut a person’s drive and ambition can also be problematic, setting the stage for even longer-term problems.

Asking the Trekkiest question of all – “What is humanity’s Prime Directive?” – should we be focused on more grandiose goals like traveling at the speed of light, colonizing other planets, controlling gravity, or mitigating the impact of earthquakes and hurricanes?

With automation and AI, we will experience exponential growth in human capabilities. But without a big picture perspective and overarching goals, the path of individual opportunity runs the risk of being hijacked by other interests – political interests, corporate interests, religious interests, and national interests.

We still lack imagination for what future generations will need. To get to this point, a mountain of work still remains.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

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




17 Responses to “The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment and the Re-Skilling of America”

Comments List

  1. Dean

    So next year we will be seeing ads for people with 5 years experience as virtual reality professionals and solar powered drone engineers. Will the companies who need these unthought-of skills do anything to train the people they need, or will they leave that up to the individuals themselves? It's inevitable that management at these companies will say that we need to immediately triple the number of H1B visas to deal with the shortage of these new skills. Of course H1B visa holders won't have the needed skills, but they will work much cheaper and won't be able to change employers easily so they will be more desired by the same managers who won't do anything to retrain existing workers. The more things change the more they stay the same.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Thanks Dean, Whenever a new profession is getting formed it ends up being a sloppy process. The early experts train others in more of an apprentice style arrangement, and most are tasked with learning on their own. The first attempts at formal training are also quite sloppy as people learn the right sequence for learning modules. Sometimes it can all happen in a classroom but it can involve some combinations of tools, labs, hands-on techniques, model-building and more. Since foreign workers are generally hungrier, and more driven, than U.S. workers there will always be a demand for imported talent with niche skills. Overall number of specific skills are diverging so complexity continues to grow. Futurist Thomas Frey
  2. Kimberly Byrne

    Tom - Thank you for your thoughts and ideas in this article. I both agree and disagree with some of the ideas presented. I applaud the idea of adjusting our concepts for formal education from longer training expectations to shorter expectations. As you alude, technology is changing every minute; planning for this talent is necessary in order to fulfill the requirements and available of talent with these new capabilities. I don't agree with the continued focus on the youth and technology. Youth today is more in touch with where technology is moving and the products and talents that are needed to support this. They always seem to find a way if they are paying attention. Paying attention is a behavioral challenge, not a technology challenge. I believe that there is not enough focus on the aging population, which is healthier and is growing in numbers. Many of this group are interested in continuing to work, but will require new ways of thinking of how to keep this group able, available, and capable to find opportunities that will both fulfill their need to contribute as well as to backstop their dwindling financial needs. Tech companies are averse to hiring older workers, so what is the killer app for this older generation to stay involved? How do we couple this group with technology?
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Angela Conte</a>

    Inspired but still lacking social wholeness and integrity. Why, because there is something called learning styles that has been around the edges of education circles for decades. Its about allowing people to focus on what they do best by utilizing their natural abilities. The thing is some people are natural leaders, some are followers, some are big picture conceptualizers and some are more into the pixels of life. I look forward to the day when educators, and their financiers, are focused on developing people for greatness and not for working for businessmen whose only interest is to make lots of money.
  4. graham watson

    The people displaced from agriculture moved easily into factory work because the new jobs did not require a marked increase in intelligence. Such is not the case what is going to happen to those on the left side of the I.Q. Bell Curve?They won't even be required to be janitors in the futuristic plants...floors will be swept by robots!
  5. john

    What annoys me when I read these kind of articles is that there is no mention of basic guaranteed income that should be obvious for a democratic (creation of money is given to the citizen and not the private banks), liberal (no private bank monopoly) and social (decrease of poverty) regime. Il seems that sometimes people like Thomas Frey and Peter Diamandis who are obviously nice people lack some psychology because they are part of an elite who has the iq and the temper to avoid the vicious cycle of unemployment and its impact. I really do not see any rational argument against basic income except social darwinism which is a kind of eugenism so I hope to read more about this subject from these people. For example, the title of Peter Diamandis book should not have been "abundance" but "poverty in an age an abundance" because this is the main characteristic of our civilization. Also english is not my mother tongue so sorry for the approximations.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      John, Thanks for bringing up this topic. Guaranteed minimum income (GMI) has some interesting test cases to support it, but before anyone in the U.S. expends their political capital proposing it, we'll have to see how it works in Switzerland. The Swiss economy has many similarities to our's in the U.S. GMI won't get any real traction here until technological unemployment proves real or we have some other severe economic collapse. With employment showing significant gains and the overall economy improving, it won't happen anytime soon. Futurist Thomas Frey
      • <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jonathan Kolber</a>

        Tom, Thanks for an interesting article. While I disagree with a number of your statements, I respect your thoughtfulness and openness to discussing these matters. I'll comment on two of your statements. First, when I hear that unemployment is declining, I want to know whether the official figures are being adjusted to reflect those would-be workers who have ceased looking. Absent that adjustment, the figures are highly inaccurate. Also, even if actual unemployment is now declining, this may simply reflect the fact that recent rapid improvements in AI and robotic capabilities (discussed below) have not yet proliferated through much of the economy. Second, you say that it's not possible for the human race to run out of work. But why? Within our present scarcity-based paradigm, it does look absurd. And yet capitalism is aggressively rewarding those who are automating more and more jobs. Evidently, you believe that there is an unlimited amount of useful work that can be done, and that a significant portion of that work can be done better by people than by tomorrow's machines. Yet this presumption of human competitiveness is increasingly suspect. For example, IBM Watson is partnering with hundreds of companies, automating jobs wholesale. (For marketing purposes they deny this, yet their target customers are assuredly seeking cost reductions, which can be guaranteed. IBM's touted new markets represent no more than a possible bonus.) The assumption that people can be trained for the new jobs that automation will produce is likewise questionable. Already, deep learning has displayed limited competencies for the acquisition and organization of knowledge that far exceed those of any person. Yes, these capabilities are still new and the scope remains small. That said, there is no inherent reason why such capabilities cannot proliferate across all manner of work. We now have major scientific discoveries being made and replicated by AI's, inventions by AIs being patented, articles in national media being written by AIs, investment funds being run by AIs, and so forth. Almost every week, new intellectual accomplishments by AIs are being announced. It is not necessary that our present narrow AI replace whole professions. It need only carve out pieces of professions, again and again, like a swiss cheese. Should IBM and other AI service providers realize their ambitions, multitudes of workers will be displaced, and the number of humans who remain employed (at very different jobs) will be smaller. Further, those remaining workers will rightly feel precarious, and there will be further competitive downward pressure on wages (Andrew McAfee's bizarre statement to the contrary notwithstanding.) This is not good for society. Likewise, robots are now being equipped with human-level senses of sight, hearing and touch. In every case where an AI, or an AI-guided robot, can replace a human function within a profession, companies will perform the cost-benefit analysis of human vs. machine. Rarely will the human look economically attractive for long in such a comparison. While job optimists often cite "creativity" as a uniquely human activity, the rapidly proliferating range of creative activities now being performed by AI's require that those optimists ever-more narrowly define this word. People may eventually do wonderful creative work in partnership with AIs, as you apparently believe, but the road from here to that promised land appears to be strewn with challenges. We concur that a conventional guaranteed income will unfortunately not be adopted in most countries, at least until there is a serious crisis. I have explored the numerous factors working against such adoption in a recent article, Guaranteed Mirage Income?, just published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. ( Unconventional approaches to providing a guaranteed income are needed. Given that computer power continues to accelerate exponentially, it is reasonable to project that machine capabilities will also continue to accelerate. This means that the disruption from job loss now being forecast by Oxford, B of A, Brookings and others could well hit us much faster and harder than most are contemplating. As you are no doubt aware, those researchers are generally projecting 40%+ levels of job displacement circa 2025, and up to 85% in some sectors and countries. Such levels far exceed the worst of the Great Depression. Job losses on such an epic scale could promote the rise of demagogues across the world, and other terrible social consequences--as you acknowledge. Where we significantly differ is my belief that, in order to avert major social disruption in the 2020s and beyond, far more fundamental change is needed than most are yet willing to contemplate. I have proposed one well-received solution in my new book, A Celebration Society. Other sustainable abundance-based solutions are also possible. We need to start exploring, testing, and refining such solutions now, so a viable solution becomes ready before a tsunami of technological job loss arrives. If such a tsunami doesn't materialize and your optimism about new jobs for humans (shared with many other respected thinkers, I will acknowledge) proves prescient, we will all breathe a collective sigh of relief. But, on the chance that massive job loss could happen, wouldn't we be wise to prepare for that contingency?
        • FuturistSpeaker

          Hi Jonathan, Thanks for weighing in on this matter. My objection to guarantee minimum income is not that it won't work, but that it still has a few more stages of proving itself before it will become a viable option in the minds of the decision-makers. So far it hasn't been attempted on a large scale such as an entire country, over a sufficient period of time. Also, the experiments to date have not been done in complex societies with more fluid populations. In my latest column on megaprojects (, one of the key drivers behind most megaprojects will be to keep people employed. Yes, there will be countless employment gaps over the years ahead, and yes, it may not be possible to reskill everyone for the jobs of the future. But each problem creates an opportunity, and opportunities create jobs. I'm very interested in reading your book, "A Celebration Society." Thanks for letting me know about it. Futurist Thomas Frey
  6. john

    Hello Thomas, thank you for your answer. To be honest i am not convinced with the end of job analysis and i think that we are moving in the end of productive jobs that will be more and more replaced by predatory jobs (services to businesses) and slave jobs (services to people) and there are no limits to these kinds of jobs. Regarding the change, you are the expert but i think that the impact of massive population of engineers coming in india and china and some technological trends (ai, robotics, solar panels, 3d printing of houses,..) will provoke a high rate of unemployment among people with university degrees who will start to develop these alternative ideas such as basic income. But that is also a matter of making people that basic income is just money creation directed to the people and not to the private bank olirachy. Therefore it is democratic and liberal. Besides, it will avoid crisis connected to speculation that you can not avoid when money is given to the happy fews of the lobby, it will avoid inequalities (piketty) and taxx heavens (zucman). As for money creation, i recommand this book ( in order to understand how money creation works and how it should work. I just read quickly your recent article: "While those may be options, there’s also great danger in preparing for “slacker lifestyles” where people feel less significant, less certain about their future, and less connected to the value they have to offer. As a society we risk becoming soft and lazy.". I disagree with you about this. All the studies and all the real experiences show that basic income does not lead to lazyness. Only 2/3% of people stop working and they often raise their kid and go back to university. So on that topic, the lazyness argument is just irrational and all the scientific datas that i have read based on millions of people show that this is propaganda. But if i am wrong and if you do have some scientific studies that show that more than 5 to 10% of people quit their jobs with basic income, i will admit to be wrong but that is just not what i have read so far. Also i disagree with the datas regarding jobs and the economic situation. The BLS changes the way they mesure the numbers so your point is like saying that enron is doing really fine. I just did a two minutes search on the internet but you can check the MIT website of Brynjolfsson and McAfee but the economic situation does not seem to get better according to all these figures: Besides, the point is to have a creative activity and not a job because you could advocate slavery in that case. And we are moving in the direction of more and more bullshit jobs as David Graeber call them but i prefer to say predatory/slavery kobs in a veblenian or even smithean (unproductive vs productive) job and again, the only solution against the lobbys is the basic income. Anyway, i love to read your blogs as you do have a lot of great ideas but on that subject i disagree so much with your analysis that i had to express this disagreement. Keep the good work. Best.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      John, Last week Marc Andreessen made the following statements: "Every single argument made by today's "technology will eat all the jobs" brigade is in there, from 50 years ago. Including the claim that "this time is different", that we finally reached the tipping point where the Luddite Fallacy would come true. And including the demand for massive additional government intervention in the economy to correct the resulting inherent structural flaw. Of course, since 1964, enormous numbers of new jobs have been created and quality of life in the US is way up at all income levels. Identifying the fallacies and flaws in logic in the 1964 manifesto given the 50 years that followed is an interesting exercise, and, I propose, identical to identifying the fallacies and flaws in logic in the equivalent arguments today. Perhaps most interesting change in era: Advocates then were proud to call themselves Socialists. Less so today. History is speaking to us." Nassim Taleb has referred to this as the “it hasn’t happened so it won’t happen” argument as the Turkey Fallacy (the Turkey is happy about the farmer feeding it every day until Thanksgiving). The more I dive into this topic, the easier it is for me to argue either way. Futurist Thomas Frey
  7. john

    Thomas, my point of view is diferent. I will try to explain it with an example of a simplified economy where 1000 people earn money building houses. There is technological progess and therefore you just need 100 people to build houses with 3d printers. But here come the predators, the lobbys. They make business with the governement and tell them that in order to build houses, you need regulation a, b, c, d and they provide regulations a, b, c, d,... So you have 100 people that build the houses and maybe 300 people that provide the regulatory work that is 90% useless. Then, the rest of the 600 people provide services to the 300 people that have vampirized the economy and get most of the money. So yàu still have work but the productive work is replaced with predatory and slave work. This is a very simple example but that is how it works and people do not really have the choice and do predatory work and slave work because if they do not work, they become homeless. So the only way to have a productive society once you reach a certain level of technological progress is to give people a basic income and to provide them with the time and the open source software-hardware-education in order to help them contribute to society. The correlation between work and the social contribution is getting negative with the development of predatory and slave work. Regarding the lazyness argument of basic income, there are scientific datas about millions of people that show that it is just false. As for the money, the idea is just to transform western societies into democratic and liberal societies by orienting the creation of money not toward private banks oligarchies bu toward we, the people. As Graeber wrote in his book, let's never forget that democracy was born when Solon said to the bankers "we will not pay the debts".
  8. john

    I have just read this interview by David Graeber: I recommend as well the french philosopher Bernard Stiegler and alas the untranslated french thinker Michel Clouscard (except in philosophy, most of the good french writers are not translated).
  9. Eric "cybermonk" Philo

    Regarding the lazyness argument, has anyone heard of the "lazy healthy happy advanced chimp who has paid it's dues to evolution and now it is New Era's Eve party time FOR ALL thanks to basic income argument"? It's OK neither had I. There is at least a couple ways to do the sepreme-being-of-leisure thing.Remember the folks in PIXAR'S WALL-E or maybe a field day for the Maker Movement. I'm with john. Robots don't scare me compared to the Id, Ego, and the human's insatiable addiction to dominate, control and exterminate other humans. Since it's a functional way to pass on genes I forgive the naughty advanced chimps and hopefully our ultra-potent progeny will also. NOW GET ME MY ROBOT DOCTOR :0 Seriously love the comments here. Hope to return for more material. THIS DISCUSSION DOES NOT SCARE ME BUT THE LACK THEREOF DOES. and now I must diverge to sit on my lazyness and watch Woody Allen's Sleeper.

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