Human-Vs-Machine-1

In 1964, and open letter was drafted and sent to President Johnson, warning him of the coming Triple Revolution.

The letter was composed and signed by 35 members of the “Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution,” which include luminaries like Nobel Chemist, Linus Pauling; civil rights activist, Tom Hayden; and Swedish Nobel Economist, Gunnar Myrdal.

The letter focused on three revolutions taking place at the time:

  1. Cybernation Revolution – increasing automation
  2. Weaponry Revolution – mutually assured destruction
  3. Human Rights Revolution – growing civil unrest

While the letter talked about all three issues, it focused primarily on the Cybernation Revolution where they predicted that machines would cause massive new unemployment:

“A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor. Cybernation is already reorganizing the economic and social system to meet its own needs.”

Of particular interest to me was the work of one of the signers, Robert Theobald, a futurist who had written extensively on the economics of abundance and his advocacy of a Basic Income Guarantee. These are the same topics being discussed by those today who fear massive technological unemployment in the years ahead.

Even though this 1964 warning of a Triple Revolution registered little more than a tiny blip on the radar screen of history, computers have dramatically changed the jobs landscape as well as the skills required to perform those jobs.

Today we are seeing many voice similar concerns about technological unemployment, where computers, robots, and machines are automating our jobs out of existence. In fact, some have gone so far as to call this the “robot jobs Armageddon.”

So is this time truly different? Here are six overarching shifts in the world that are causing many to say, “Yes, this time may really be different!”

Six Massive Global Trends

As we survey the trends landscape, there are literally hundreds of significant trends affecting us in one way or another. But if we sort through the ones that pose a fundamental shift to employment, seven of them tend to rise above the rest.

1.) Declining Birthrates 

Britain’s Telegraph recently published an article with the headline, “South Koreans will be ‘extinct’ by 2750 if nothing is done to halt the nation’s falling fertility rate.” With a fertility rate of 1.19 children per woman, Korea now ranks as the lowest in the world.

India, China, Japan, and Brazil all have massively declining fertility rate, part of a global trend towards negative population growth. Yet the media and many educated Americans have missed this major development entirely, instead sticking to erroneous perceptions that global population will continue to drive everything from environmental degradation and immigration to food and resource scarcity.

Here are a few of the latest fertility rates, according to the World Bank, in major countries around the world. Keep in mind the replacement rate is 2.1 for a population to stay at its current level.

  • U.S. – 1.93
  • Chile (1.85)
  • Brazil (1.81)
  • Thailand (1.56)
  • France (2.0)
  • Norway (1.95)
  • Sweden (1.98)
  • Russia (1.60)
  • Japan (1.43)
  • U.K. (1.91)
  • India (2.48)
  • China (1.69)

With the exception of India, the major population centers of the world all are destined for negative population growth.

Yes, the world population is still growing, fueled primarily by people living longer and high fertility rates in Africa. But even Africa is predicted to slip into negative growth rates over time.

The most significant challenge is the long lead-time needed to move in the other direction. Since raising a child takes about 20 years to go from infant to productive adult, any major improvements here wouldn’t show up until somewhere between 2035-2040.

Even though many are rooting for zero population growth for environmental reasons, the struggles ahead related to managing systems with a growing imbalance between young people and old people, will not be easy.

2.) Exponential Industries

In some ways exponential industries are a great way to compensate for our declining workforce.

Exponentialism is the science behind digital technologies far-reaching influence on innovation. The exponential cost-performance of the three basic building blocks of our digital world – computing power, storage, and bandwidth – have started to affect vertically every other business, sending jolts of performance opportunities through these industries.

This type of change is most disruptive when two or more technologies “interact and combine” in ways that “coalesce into open platforms and ecosystems.” Think in terms of the intersection between AI (artificial intelligence) and quantum computing, or changes to synthetic biology when it’s amplified by 3D printing.

Exponential innovations are rapidly crossing boundaries we could never imagine in the past, and as a result, our language and terminology has begun to blur. At the same time, it’s already touching staid old industries like financial services.

Mixing AI and natural language processing (NLP) with shopping, work, and social characteristics, we have the potential to develop far a more dynamic credit rating systems, facilitating far more efficient ways to match lenders and borrowers. This will mean new industries will explode from zero-to-operational in a matter of hours rather than months or years.

Exponential industries are confusing, thought provoking, and mysterious all at the same time because they have the potential to spawn massive change in a short period of time, often with little forewarning.

3.) Our Growing Levels of Awareness

The Internet is building our awareness in ways we can’t yet assign metrics to. The number of photos we see in an average month, the amount of information we consume, the amount of time we spend interacting with digital personas, avatars, and entertainment are all part of our growing awareness of the people, places, and things that will all be part of our future.

Every 60 seconds there are over:

  • 2 million Google searches
  • 205 million emails sent
  • 900 new websites created
  • 2.5 million new Facebook likes
  • $102,000 spent on Amazon
  • 152,000 new photos uploaded to Facebook
  • 3.4 million YouTube video views
  • 200,000 new Tweets on Twitter

Along with all this activity comes a user mindset that is increasingly aware of millions of tiny information fragments that guide our decision-making, our ability to adapt, and our ability to function in our increasingly fluid work environments.

Awareness will become a key part of our employability in the future.

4.) Our Growing Levels of Fragility

As our dependence on systems and technology grows, so do the number of potential breaking points.

We all know that a simple power outage can shut down our work, traffic systems, restaurants, doctor, and dental offices. Having a very reliable electric grid makes it difficult to justify backup systems in most places.

We also know how disruptive it can be to lose cell coverage, not have Wi-Fi, or lose our water, cable, or Internet altogether. Every new capability tends to increase our expectations, but when it’s gone we are forced to compensate.

The average person in the U.S. today is highly dependent on a multitude of systems, services, and technologies. As an example, we depend on:

  • Facebook to find out how our family and friends are doing
  • Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Bing Maps for directions
  • Pandora, Spotify, or Rdio for music
  • Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast for streaming TV
  • Netflix, Hulu, or iTunes for television programming
  • Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook for email
  • Amazon, eBay, and Etsy for online shopping
  • FedEx, UPS, and USPS for overnight delivery
  • Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber to make international phone calls
  • Ameritrade, eTrade, and Scottrade for trading stock

Every new dependency adds one more possible failure point to the mix. Depending on the situation, our growing levels of fragility can either increase or decrease our job prospects for the future.

5.) The Power of One

In our increasingly connected world, it’s easy to see how much power and influence the individual has today. This kind of power can be used to disrupt industries, make a difference, or even change the world.

While there have been countless examples in the past, motivated people today are making changes everywhere:

  • Grace Choi – This Harvard Business School graduate recently invented Mink, a sub-$300 3D printer that prints custom makeup pigments on demand, a product that will radically transform the high-end cosmetic industry.
  • Fatou Doumbia – When it comes to creating sustainable farming and food supplies, the people of Mali, West Africa still have a long ways to go. Fatou’s plan is to empower women, teach them the best farming techniques, and overcome the challenges of a male-oriented society.
  • Ben Kaufman – This 27 year old founder of the NY-based invention company, Quirky, has raised over $90 million to turn social invention into a faster way to bring great ideas to market.
  • David Allerby – 33 year old founder of HomeCare, a company that provides temporary in-home assistants for seniors and children with developmental disabilities.
  • Sean Kelly – This 29 year old two-time freestyle snowboarding national champion now runs HUMAN Healthy Vending, a chain of franchised vending machines filled with healthy foods, like fresh fruit and sports supplements.

As people come to grips with their own wielding of power, the result will be unique and unprecedented. They will consciously decide to do something extremely positive, like those listed above, or something extremely negative.

What we are seeing is the balance of that power shifting from large corporations into the hands of individuals. But when it comes to people losing their job, we will need to be ever vigilant to insure those who find themselves on the outside, don’t resort to using the dark side of this power.

6.) Our Overprotected “Nerf Generation”

Will our grandchildren grow up to call their grandchildren lazy?

It seems that every generation has a cynical view of their kids and grandkids. They don’t try hard enough, make the right decisions, plan well enough, and simply don’t have any common sense.

At the same time, we have seriously overprotected our kids. There are no longer real chemistry sets and schools aren’t allowed to let students use a scissors. Every sport requires helmets, chin guards, mouth guards, kneepads, and a nurse or doctor on call in case something goes wrong. And playgrounds have to be designed so no one can possibly get hurt, meaning no swings, no teeter-totter, no merry-go-round, and padded surfaces everywhere.

Since we’ve chosen to make all kids feel special, no one actually feels that way anymore. We can’t have winners without losers. In the real world, people will never care about your kid unless your kid gives them a reason to care.

In the U.S. over 29% of those under 35 still live at home with their parents. Other places in the world it’s worse. In Italy, as example, over 60% of men under 35 still live with their parents.

Dealing with an overly-coddled Nerf generation will have long term implications on tomorrow’s job market, both in terms of maturity, employability and overall resilience when it comes to dealing with adversity.

Final Thoughts

Is our system for creating new jobs a “self-organizing complex system?”

Will our exponential systems compensate for declining birthrates? Will our growing levels of awareness compensate for our growing levels of fragility? Will the “power of one” compensate for our overprotected “Nerf Generation?”

In many cases yes, but not always.

Are people spotting and responding to the opportunities in ways where the future will somehow take care of itself? Or do we need to send something similar to the “Triple Revolution” letter to the President of the U.S. warning him/her of the trials ahead?

Not everyone agrees there will be problems.

MIT economics professor David Autor describes it this way.

“Journalists and expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities. The challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense.”

Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, offers another fascinating point of view:

“If ‘displace more jobs’ means ‘eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,’ the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning?

My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing.

Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional workweek will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”

There is solid evidence that many low-skilled employees are working less, but the reverse is not true for high-skilled employees. In other words, the low-paid routine jobs just aren’t paying enough, and that’s an incentive for employers to replace people with machines.”

It’s easy to see how things are different this time around, but are they different enough to warrant concern?

From my perspective, the job market is indeed a self-organizing complex system, and for the most part it will take care of itself. However, the main problems we face will stem from those feeling personally betrayed, waging a private war against either companies or systems they deem responsible. The power of the individual should not be underestimated.

Sadly, these one-off incidents are rarely predictable, and from a systems-thinking perspective, are the least preventable.

That said, I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this time may or may not be different.

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By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything
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14 Responses to “When it comes to jobs, why is this time different?”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://sillyguesses.blogspot.com/2014/07/technological-unemployment.html' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Brian Kelly</a>

    The question is really what will we do if and when robots can basically do everything a human can. More importantly is there a way we can modify our economy to value things that we would not want a robot/computer doing. If we can begin valuing those things then we will really be able to future proof our economy by building in the value of humanity.
  2. Emily Green-Cain

    Will we leave out low income folks who don't have access to the technology in the changing system? Or might we provide basic services to everyone, and your work will become exploring the art of what you love to do, or what you can best contribute to society?
  3. Firas Hermez

    @Brian, Just throwing my 2c regarding to the "What will we do?" question, I think we still have many challenges to solve, we may not become the ones who workout all the details and instead become high level & abstract problem solvers while the machines deal with the nitty gritty. We could also spend a lot of our time building and strengthening our sense of community & collaboration, I think our current mode of operation (the 9-5 cycle, chasing the carrot on the stick) has stripped us of many of the qualities that would otherwise help us in building a strong & collaborative global community. This is not to say that moving towards a world where almost all jobs are automated will be easy, I think there will be many bumps along the way, in some case we could very well face some major issues especially once impact of automation starts to become noticeable by the general public. @Emily, The optimist in me would like to think that soon after the world realizes that automation is here and that our need to manual labour is becoming less significant we will start to adjust our economic models to begin decoupling survival from the need to work. I hope that we will start to see the implementation of a form of a Universal Basic Income and eventually move to a resource based economy or a similar model where people are guaranteed to have at least what they need to live a dignified life (quality housing, access to food, healthcare and education). As technology advances and scarcity is eliminated we should be able to provide everyone with access to the basic needs, in theory at least.
  4. Gavin

    Well a lot of people are going to say people will have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop being a freeloader, while themselves earning $2 million per year for a few hours on cnbc as an example. I cannot agree with number 6 Thom regarding health and safety, if you have been injured and it was reasonable that you should have been protected you would think you should have been. Getting smashed teeth and damaged vertebrae is no fun. Also on number 6 you say Nerfs lack resilience when it comes to dealing with adversity, well I think they have had a lot of adversity to deal with. The employment situation is still dysfunctional for society as a whole especially since the financial system problems, I also think they have had much more brainwashing or distractions than any previous generations.
  5. <a href='http://None' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Roger</a>

    Great article! What's I find most fascinating - and most encouraging - is just how accurate the "Triple Revolution Committee" was in propheysing the future. Futeristically speaking they scored a perfect trifecta in their three areas of concern. How did they do it? Or are those areas so universal that they couldn't miss? Lets take a look: 1. CYBERNETICS & AUTOMATION? Bingo! Giant Bullseye! Plus Personal Computers! All those changes may have just gotten started back in 1964, but they sure have been growing logrithimacally since. Which has given us a huge amount of new information on automation effects as well as several decades to look athe rather overwhelming changes. And something unexpected seems to be happening..... After reading the specific fears of the committee about future unemployment, what we see today is that the ratio of employment versus unemployment, and of job-time compared with free-time has changed surprisingly little in the past 50 years. Employment-wise, we still have the the same problem, and it is roughly the same size. We do different things in different ways now, but as a society the same number of us spend about the same proportions of our day doing those things for roughly the same recompense. Our system seems to have been elastic enough to accommodate most of the automation workplace changes. Our economic and employment system did not fail to change; it may yet face more changes. 2. WEAPONRY? After WWI & II, atom bombs, comm vs cap, acceptance of geneocide, revolutions in major countries, and smart weapons outstripping smart defenses........I still hate war in all it's forms, but it would be hard to argue that the weapons and conflicts of the last fifty years are not preferable to the century that preceeded them. Modern weaponry's terrifying potential may have actually forced us to learn about limiting the size of the conflicts and taught more of the neccessity of basic diplomacy. On a global scale that's good. So we seem to be progressing, but with a long way yet to go. 3. HUMAN RIGHTS: Huge progress in the last 50 years. This seems the brightest area of all. It's not a job completed, but the progress would certainly startle that committee. There are accomplishments here that that were nothing but radical and fantasical pipe dreams in 1964. Racial and sexual equality, womens's rights, worker's health, government assistance programs, student loans, and social security. Just to name a few. The "Triple Revolution Committee" couldn't have been more correct. Those futuristic thinkers in our past surely did correctly identify many key problems our society would have to face. My hat's off to them. For their own private peace of mind, I hope they were equally successful in prophesying the successes we have had in solving those problems. And the value that these challenges have had in shaping our world. May they rest easy. Roger L.
  6. <a href='http://www.creativeinnovationgroup.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Julie</a>

    60% of men under the age of 35 still live at home?! That's shocking! It must make dating rather complicated. As long as the world has problems we will always need to hire people to fix them. It looks like the world has more problems now than ever. If we have robots, someone needs to run the robots. If we have drone, we'll need drone operators. As the world changes, so will the jobs.
  7. bob

    I am shocked when you imply that a lot of men under the age of 35 do stay at home because they are lazy. I think that a lot of them stay at home because they do not find a well-paid job. The part of the population that works declines all the time and the BLS figures of "unemployment" are just soft propaganda by changing the method in order to decrease the unemployment figures artificially for a political agenda. Nobody after 21 or 25 years old wants to stay at home with their parents. At each generation since the beginning of mankind, old people say to the young people that they are lazy. The diference now is that finding a well-paid job becomes more and more dificult unless you do have the skills in order to work in wall-street or in the silicon valley. The overprotected generation was the baby-boom generation, not the x or y generations. This is obvious in terms of employment or income gaps (piketty).
  8. <a href='http://www.mhealthtalk.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Wayne Caswell</a>

    Tech innovation continues to accelerate at exponential pace, following Moore’s Law. Not only are machines taking “blue collar” factory jobs, but now smart systems are working their way up the employment value chain. “Grey collar” service workers have been under pressure for a while, especially those jobs (like travel agent) that involve pattern matching. Now jobs involving the composition of structured reports (such as basic journalism) have digital competition, and Google’s self-driving car portends a future of driverless taxicabs. Even “white collar” jobs, managerial and supervisory in particular, are being threatened. After all, if the line workers have been replaced by machines, there’s little need for direct human oversight of the kind required by human workers, no? Stories of digital lawyers and surgeons accelerate the perception that robots really are taking over the workplace, and online education systems like the Khan Academy demonstrate how readily university-level learning can be conducted without direct human contact. One area seems to have avoided this trend: the “Pink collar” workforce that requires high-touch empathy and emotional intelligence, and these jobs are largely performed by women. Nursing, primary school teaching, and personal grooming, for example, require varying levels of education and knowledge, but all have a strong caretaker component, as well as demand the ability to understand the unspoken or non-obvious needs of patients/students/clients/etc. See Automation, Robots and The Pink Collar Future (http://www.mhealthtalk.com/2012/08/automation-robots-and-the-pink-collar-future/).
  9. Louis Rifkin

    Are we asking the right questions by determining the "value" of everything. Shouldn't the question really be what the economic and social value is of using money in any form. Shouldn't we look for positive ways of restructuring our economic and social systems where money is a zero factor - i.e. not in play at all - a la Star Trek? Should we not look at how we can transition to a new "order". I don't expect that will be easy but anything is possible. Our 5,000 year old economic system seems really difficult to continue with in our "essential for survival" technological world.
  10. <a href='http://www.penningtongroup.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Randy Pennington</a>

    Technology has always transformed work and created new opportunities while leaving others behind. This time is really no different in that respect. Just because we have never experienced this level of profound change doesn't mean that it has never occurred. There are two challenges that make this existing transformation difficult: 1. We have a substantial portion of our population who are not prepared or equipped to be relevant in a new future with automation and robots. 2. The global reach of technology means that our challenges are much greater in scope and speed. The first step is acknowledging reality and telling ourselves the truth. Many of the jobs lost in the recession are never coming back. We have a large number of people who are not qualified for the growth jobs of the future. Whatever deficiency exists in work ethic (and I believe that it is individual rather than generational in nature) is the fault of a society that didn't teach responsibility. Is this time different? Maybe to us, but not to history.
  11. Gavin

    I would love a Star Trek system Louis, maybe not no form of easy trade currency but certainly less of the need for it to live well and independently. So much needs to change socially like the Law, that sector seems crazy to me its essentially some sort of a game instead of a universal morality that protects the individual from others. People get into trouble with the law because of society's dysfunction which is caused by people not being taught the law from a young age at school for example. People get their sense of the law and how to deal with problems from dysfunctional teachers, friends and family. How can things improve until this is addressed?
  12. <a href='http://sillyguesses.blogspot.com/2014/07/technological-unemployment.html' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Brian Kelly</a>

    @Firas You are very right about the 9-5 cycle. Certainly we will need to break from what we think of as work and a work week. @Anne Having a shorter work week doesn't need to force elimination of benefits. Benefits can be given for 1 hour of work or 1 minute, it is all arbitrary, or available in different ways altogether. More importantly people need security in regards to health and safety no matter the source.
  13. Richard Dunn

    Not impressed. Our government is at war with its own people, re. immigration, to lower standard of living while bringing in people when we cannot take care of our own and discriminating against our own children. There are a lot of differences, you just choose not to see. Put down the bong. When did the American people vote to be taken over by foreign interests? Why is an American child in his or her own country worth less than a foreigner creeping over the border for a free lunch as a viral load? Curious, have you ever taken any coursework in economics or business or is every day Christmas on the taxpayers dime? Merry Christmas!!!

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