While I’m in a bit of a groove about the future of the workplace, I may as well talk about how there may not be a future for the workplace.
Automation destroyed the working class
The Industrial Revolution was so long ago now that it qualifies as history. The replacement of skilled labour with machines wiped out a whole class of skilled workers, but simultaneously expanded opportunities for unskilled workers to such an extent that overall standards of living rose and most people saw this as a Good Thing(tm). However since the seventies, robotics and computing started to strip humans from the factory to the point that now the modern factory floor workforce is only a tiny proportion of what it used to be. Similar effects can be found in farming, where vast farms are now run by just a handful of people.
Any repetitive physical task can be completed by a robot – and nobody has questioned this too hard. Factory conditions are harsh and most people don’t want to perform the exact same task hundreds of times a day due to the physical and psychic toll that can take.
However a clear upshot of this is that unskilled labour has little place in a modern economy. You could perhaps be a driver (a career with probably less that 20 years left before that becomes automated) – work in retail (currently being seriously eroded by ecommerce) – construction (safe for now) – but the options are limited and shrinking. If a job doesn’t require physical presence (e.g. Bricklayer) or face-to-face interaction (most sales) then it is potentially at risk.
A debate I’ve been having recently with a friend thinks that office workers are more immune… but I think she’s being rather optimistic.
Analytics will destroy the middle class
Famed economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted widespread unemployment “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour” – i.e. we will make the economy so efficient that we don’t need all available working people to run it any more.
Now this future has been long foreseen by Science Fiction writers and falls across a wide spectrum of possibilities. There’s the wildly optimistic future presented by the late Iain M. Banks of “The Culture” where effectively machines take care of humanity in a benign manner and give them a life of luxury and freedom. Then there is the darker end, such as UK comic 2000AD‘s character Judge Dredd‘s dystopian Mega Cities where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and 99% of the population is unemployed and lives off far from generous state handouts and life for most people is pretty dismal.
According to a study by Oxford University nearly 47% of US jobs are at high risk of being replaced by automation within the next 20 years. So this may be a reality we need to work out sooner rather than later. If your job involves decision making and it has routine repeatable elements to it then it is at risk of a pattern detecting engine being applied to it and that decision making process delegated to a machine. This could be as simple as approving a loan – something that is largely automated anyway – or as complex as diagnosing cancer.
Now many people may resist this and argue that a machine could never replicate the subtlety of human thinking. To some extent that is true, but the quality of human decision making is poor and it is arguable that handing over things such as medical diagnoses to systems that can absorb a volume of data far beyond our poor human brains capacity – and assess it rationally and fairly – may well improve the decisions that do get made.
So, perhaps it is time hail our new AI overlords, and let us pray they are kind to their creators…