There is a great deal of concern that artificial intelligence and automation will drastically displace human workers. In reference to automation killing jobs, Jeff Bezos, has said, “It’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next twenty years.” Bill Gates wants to tax robots. Elon Musk believes that a universal basic income will be needed to compensate the unemployed masses.
Bezos, Gates and Musk aren’t just raising the alarm about “hamburger flipping” jobs. Automation’s most profound impact will be felt as corporations eliminate white collar jobs in an effort to bolster dwindling revenue growth with productivity improvements. No profession, degree, skill, or amount of experience will insulate you from a robotic threat.
Although one might think that low wage labor would be the first target of automation, the automotive industry shows us another story. When robots started to replace humans on the assembly line, the first jobs eliminated were the skilled painters and welders, not the lug nut tighteners. Profitability improvements are achieved by reducing overall costs, not just cutting labor. Wages obviously play a major factor, but significant savings are also achieved by reducing quality defects and rework. A botched paint job or a poorly welded joint is much more expense to repair than a cross-threaded bolt. So skilled painters and welders received pink slips before their less skilled union compatriots.
The economics of replacing skilled employees translates into bad news for professionals and the highly compensated in all fields. This is especially true for jobs that are repetitive, regardless of the skill level. For example, it takes a great amount of education and skill to perform an appendectomy; however, routine surgery is predictably repetitive and thus is a candidate to eventually be replaced by automation. A robotic arm is demonstrably more precise than the steadiest surgeon’s hand.
It’s not just the highly compensated medical professional that’s at risk for being made redundant. The most tech savvy computer scientist can’t code as efficiently as a self-modifying software program. A policeman with Sherlock Holmes’ power of observation can’t outperform a surveillance camera enhanced with facial recognition software.
The fact of the matter is, you’ll never be as fast, efficient or precise as a robot. Never. So are we all doomed to an unemployed existence? I don’t think so. Artificial intelligence may be capable of accurately performing tasks in a nanosecond but it has a hard time with originality. A computer is an enabling tool, but a person is capable of producing original content.
Some will nitpick that artificial intelligence has the capacity to self-learn and perform rudimentary forms of creation. Computers can compose songs and write code, but I would argue that’s more a form of mimicry than true creation. Like a mediocre entertainer impersonating a singing style, rather than the genius of a Louis Armstrong that created an entirely new music genre.
Human creativity is the crucial element to maintaining relevance in the age of automation. Instead of trying to achieve robot-like prowess, I suggest devoting your efforts to becoming more creative. That’s the source of your real intrinsic worth, not how fast or accurate you can perform a routine task.
So what’s your uniquely human skill-set? How should I know? I don’t know you. My recommendation is that you start with some introspection. What do you like to do? What do you daydream about? What was your favorite childhood activity? Why do people enjoy being around you? Start with these very personal characteristics. Then look for methods of transforming your unique perspective into creating marketable products and services.
Is it going to be easy? Probably not. The good news is that you’re in control of your future once you learn to unlock your inner creativity. So my advice is to take the first step by celebrating your humanity, go create something.