Future of Work: Rise of the Machines

We are at a critical inflection point in human history. Sometime in the fairly near future many, and perhaps even most, of the tasks that we consider “work” will be done by a machine (robot) or a software algorithm. In the next one to two generations, in the developed world, we will be “beyond work”, or rather beyond work as we know it. This will have a profound effect on individuals, businesses and communities.

The belief that in the future machines and software will be able to do much of what humans can do today is considered a truism by entrepreneurs and visionaries in technology centers like Silicon Valley and on tech focused college campuses like MIT and Stanford. But it is rarely mentioned in discussions among policy makers, and is definitely not being talked about in most corporate board rooms or around kitchen tables.

In a recent interview Bill Gates, one of the greatest living technologists, said, “Software substitution for workers, whether for drivers or nurses is progressing…..technology over time will greatly reduce demand for workers…and most people don’t have this in their mental model.”

Do you have it in your mental model? Most people don’t.

But Mr. Gates is actually understating the problem if you are to believe a recent study out of Oxford University that predicts that within 20 years 50% of all current jobs will be replaced (i.e. substituted) by machines and software.

I can guarantee that very few people have a “mental model” built around the fact that within a generation half of all jobs available today will be gone. But that is just a prediction based on what we know now. Who knows what breakthrough technology will occur that will increase that to 80% of all jobs?

In a recent book co-authored by two MIT professors called Race Against the Machine, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this topic, the authors make the claim that even leading economists are not discussing or modeling this accelerating phenomenon. And this is frightening because the technology is here in many cases, and near here in others. The effects on us as individuals, on our businesses, our economy and our culture over the next 20 years will be enormous.

Even the United Nations doesn’t list “job loss due to technology” among its five “mega-trends” that it predicts will shape our world in the next 20 years. I am no economics guru but it seems to me that if we potentially face a 50% decrease in jobs that it should be considered a big deal by pretty much everyone.

As both a high tech entrepreneur and executive, but also as a husband, father, brother, son, neighbor and friend I have spent a bunch of time thinking about what all of this means for us as people and how individuals and businesses can position themselves to not only survive but thrive in this new world. I keep asking myself a basic question; what do the accountants and the financial planners and the pizza delivery drivers do when software does your taxes and your estate planning and drones deliver pizza to your house? And how do companies in all of these industries adjust and navigate through the complexity that unrelenting and ever accelerating disruptive innovation creates?

Let’s assume for a second that the experts are even partially right and maybe we only lose 30% or 40% of all jobs. That is still a really, really big deal. If they are right and Real Estate Agents are going the way of the Dinosaur then the 300,000+ individuals who currently make their living selling real estate better quickly re-train themselves for another line of work. But in the same vein large real estate firms like Century 21 and Coldwell Banker had also better quickly develop a survival plan.

The general crux of the problem, at least as I see it, is that what many people are missing, because as Mr. Gates so eloquently put it, this isn’t part of our “mental model”, is that machines (robots and software) will of course take over the jobs that simply require repetitive tasks but they will also do knowledge work and work that requires high levels of specialization. Over time they will exhibit creativity, humor, empathy, etc. In other words, the gap between what makes a machine a machine and a human a human will become much narrower in the very near future. If a computer can beat the best chess master in the world can it also diagnose the flu? Adjust my stock portfolio to meet my retirement goals? Teach my children Mandarin? The answers of course are yes, yes, and yes.

The future is here….are you prepared?

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