In 1970 futurist Alvin Toffler published what many consider a seminal work, Future Shock, in which he hypothesized that the pace of technological advance would become so rapid that people would not be able to keep up, thus keeping them in a constant state of unease as they were shocked by new developments. From the Wikipedia entry about the book (emphasis added):
Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked.
I think he was right, and an optimist to boot.
Welcome to The Matrix
Some time ago I was surfing the web and came across this video, Humans Need Not Apply, outlining how automation could transform some key activities that we take for granted; for example, on-the-road shipping, the commute and driving in general, manufacturing and service jobs, and even doctors and medical appointments. (Video is 15 minutes long, interesting, and unsettling.) I watched this video and – assuming the technologies mature to the point where they’re implemented (and there’s no reason why they won’t IMHO) – immediately envisioned massive job displacements.
Then I saw this story, Lowe’s trials robot sales assistants. One of the refuges for people in the current employment crisis has been part-time jobs. I make pilgrimages to the local Lowes regularly. Everyone there is a part-timer insofar as I can tell; many have been displaced from full-time jobs. What will happen to these people if – when – this technology comes to fruition? (Interestingly, I was about 90% done with this essay when along comes this article: Businesses Moving Too Quickly to Robots? Will 1 in 3 Jobs Vanish by 2025?. I think the author’s blasé attitude is naïve, as you will see as I discuss below. And aside from all the points I raise here, it discusses the idea that if so many things – especially knowledge tasks – are automated, the skills and judgment people have will atrophy… something that has become the seed of a different essay!)
Nor are restaurants a safe haven. Between touch-screen order kiosks and automatic burger flippers being launched now, another refuge for people seeking work – not to mention an entry-level path into the working world for teens – will be closed off. Aspiring waiters, you’re not safe either, and in a big way – nor are bartenders.
Labor-intensive jobs, like farming and harvesting, are targets as well. Between start-ups looking at automation, and technologies already being vetted, what used to be a reliable summer job – albeit with competition from migrant workers – could easily become near-obsolete if you are a carbon-based life form.
Not Just Unskilled Work
A recent article on CNN, Guess who’s coming for your job, likewise posits that a lot of jobs are threatened by automation (embedded link is in the original; emphases added):
Last year, a team in Oxford University performed a detailed analysis of over 700 occupations in the United States. They came to the conclusion that jobs constituting a staggering 47% of U.S. employment—well over 60 million jobs—could become automated in a decade or two.
Watch that video again. Pay particular attention to the part about doctors. Medical care is about as high-skill as you can get, yet the potential exists for human employment to be undermined as well. And surgery? Medical robots are the wave of the future, don’t you know? Marry robots with telepresence from a doctor in a lower-wage country, advised by AI-goggle-wearing technicians – at much lower pay than a surgeon – on the scene. Far fetched? Not so much, I think.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the enormous disruptive potential here (links in original):
And here is the even more sobering news: Arthur speculates that in a little more than ten years, 2025, this Second Economy may be as large as the original “first” economy was in 1995 – about $7.6 trillion. If the Second Economy does achieve that rate of growth, it will be replacing the work of approximately 100 million workers. To put that number in perspective, the current total employed civilian labor force today is 146 million. A sizeable fraction of those replaced jobs will be made up by new ones in the Second Economy. But not all of them. Left behind may be as many as 40 million citizens of no economic value in the U.S alone. The dislocations will be profound.
But I see three fundamental cracks in the foundation of this technological utopia-in-the-making.
When the Lights Go Out
In an essay on the dangers of offshoring, amongst many other things I highlighted the potential for the electrical grid to go down, and go down for a long, long time (links in original, emphases added, one edited clarification in ):
Given the criticality of our electrical infrastructure to our economy, and the above-stated vulnerability of that infrastructure to low-tech sabotage, why do we – at the least – not have a significant inventory of [power station transformers] on-hand? …
Another critical vulnerability of our power grid exists; whether from a natural coronal mass ejection hitting the earth causing another Carrington Event (which we dodged two years ago), or a hostile power attacking us with an EMP (watch this video too). Both have the potential to wipe out our power grid. … Whether by human intent or Mother Nature, our electricity-powered technological civilization itself is at the mercy of foreign-sourced components.
What happens if this occurs after we’ve surrendered our manufacturing, farming, and even medical care to machines?
And this article, The U.S. government thinks China could take down the power grid, highlights not only the above danger, but this one:
Software and Interconnectedness
It seems like every week sees another bank or retail chain having its files electronically ransacked. Googling these two phrases retail cyber crime and foreign hackers attack america is – or should be – a sobering reminder that supposedly secure systems are not secure (e.g., U.S. Postal Service hacked, told Congress Oct. 22). Some take advantage of coding mistakes; for example, Windows Has a Huge Vulnerability, Get the Patch Now. Others are better at hacking, finding ways around security in general (an educational look at the dawn of understanding cyber crime is the book The Cuckoo’s Egg – and how terrifyingly reluctant law enforcement was to grasp its significance, let alone investigate).
If data that is supposed to be secure can come out (for military jet aficionados, doesn’t this new Chinese fighter look familiar?), and systems that even a brain-dead zombie would think should be secured can be hacked into, tapeworms and Trojans can go in. In addition to the electric grid, hackers have targeted our water supply. And let us not forget built-in back doors from sourcing electronic components overseas.
Imagine, as just one nightmare scenario, that in a decade most cars on the road are self-driving. Shudder at thinking that, at a particular time and date preset by people meaning ill, some cars suddenly brake, some cars accelerate, some turn hard left and others hard right, all at random. All across America, or even across the world. Or a virus in your internet-of-things fridge that, overnight, lets it get warm for a while in a calculated effort to get food to spoil “just enough” to make you sick – happening all over the country. Or someone “taking over” a surgical robot or automated pharmacy, or… or… or… the possibilities are as endless as human creativity, and as depraved as the human capacity for evil.
Yet we are enthusiastically rushing to turn control over ever more things to software and connected devices. Pilotless airplanes anyone?
(Disclaimer: I am absolutely not advocating any form of revolution, violence, vigilantism, or anything else; I condemn them without reservation. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the possibility of… “discontinuities”.)
Let’s assume this massive automation come to fruition, and over the next decade or so enormous numbers of people are displaced out of their jobs. As my fellow blogger Aline Kaplan wrote in her essay The Robot Economy (emphasis added, link also added):
Granted, there may still be enough people with jobs to afford to purchase some of the company’s products but nowhere near as many as if a robust middle class filled the stores. Unemployed or underemployed people spend money only on the necessities, after all—and sometimes on not all of those.
She is correct; an economy prospers on disposable income. And even if people are employed, and the economy recovers, I suspect consumers will be far, far more cautious in spending than before. And related, in another essay discussing the emotional impact of offshoring, I wrote (links in original, emphases added):
This perception of the top of the pile squeezing the rest is one of the things that fueled the “99%” movement; this perception is fueled by examples like this and this. Envy is a powerful emotion; seeing someone who has “more” – especially when it is believed that the “more” is acquired by unfair means – is so corrosive that virtually every religion has some prohibition against coveting what others have (e.g.,”Thou Shalt Not Covet That Which is Thy Neighbor’s”). Dangerous emotional fuel is being piled up by the perception that those at the top care nothing about their employees, just their individual bonuses regardless of the cost in rank-and-file jobs.
And a little later (emphasis added, additional text added in ):
There needs to be the capacity in the national economic system to absorb these displaced people, and to offer them a step-up as a replacement. Today offshoring [and tomorrow automation] is not a mosquito pinprick here or there, it is a swarm, tapping economic blood faster than the system can regenerate.
As these cost savings from automation come on line, those who are derided and envied as “the rich” and “the 1%” will, doubtless, not only become wealthier (and in the purest sense, being wealthy is not a bad thing) but will be perceived as having done so while razing America’s middle class. Never mind the already simmering anger at learning that companies deliberately game things to reject qualified Americans to justify more H1-B visas even though they can’t justify why they need them.
Un-or-underemployed, desperate, and angry people in large numbers plus a belief that “fat cats” are getting wealthier at their expense plus a savvy demagogue politician has never, ever ended well. (Consider that the Communist party is openly recruiting in places where large numbers of disaffected and angry people are, and that younger people are becoming more comfortable with Socialism. Neither variant holds goodwill towards “the 1%”.)
We’ve seen a similar shift before. America transitioned from an agrarian society where the vast majority of people were farmers to an industrialized society where only a few percent are involved in producing food for the vast majority. The problem now is the pace of the change, as envisioned by Toffler. The former change took place over a century and more, which meant people had time to adapt and there was a capacity for “the system” to absorb those needing to make the transition.
Warning: Dragons Ahead
As a mechanical engineer I appreciate technology, delight in seeing implemented creativity, and enjoy its fruits. I am certainly no Luddite. But we are heading into the hazy mist of a future whose situation none can accurately foresee.
On old maps unknown areas would be marked with dire warnings, such as “Here there be dragons”. Looking ahead as we sail into a future holding bright potential, a growing chorus is pointing to white breakers crashing, seemingly indicating multiple dangerous shoals. Is this the time for flank speed and blind faith?
My friend Neil Patrick has two very timely pieces worth your time as well:
© 2014, David Hunt, PE