Some worry that the advent of high tech machines, robots and AI in particular, will eliminate most of our jobs and lead to high unemployment. Machines can do it cheaper, after all. And historically, many jobs have been replaced by machines. We no longer need elevator operators, for example. Many farm tasks have been made very efficient through machines which require a single operator instead of dozens or hundreds of workers. While centuries ago, most of our jobs were agrarians, a small percentage of modern employment are farm workers.

While some careers have vanished due to technological advancement, many new careers and industries have taken their place. More than enough to replace the lost jobs. While the population has increased, the lost job categories have been replaced by many more categories never even imagined by previous generations. According to the World Economic Forum in 2016, 65% of children entering school will work in jobs that don’t yet exist.

Since the industrial revolution, predictions of automation taking the jobs of humans has been both correct and ultimately irrelevant. Every new industry that is created, even robotics, requires human beings. The great machines that do much of our farming today ultimately requires more people to design and maintain the systems than the total number of previous generation farm workers! True, they are not picking the vegetables in the same numbers, but the machinists who manufacture the parts for the great machines combined with the designers of the machines and the programmers for each of the many systems are all new careers. The fact of the matter is that the more complex our systems become, the more people are required to maintain them. Even the robot that takes a job from a human needs humans in the end.

When I began in the computer industry, I could build the computer with my own hands and then write a simple program to run it. Today, because of the vastly increased power and specialization, each system in the computer and the software have dozens of specialists that are needed. This is what the doomsayers of robot-employment-armageddon miss: increasing complexity requires more flesh and blood people to integrate and intuit the functions and workings of the systems. While it is true that a robot with a sufficiently powerful programming can do the tasks it understands, such as running an assembly line, playing chess or go, or running through a diagnostic routine for a person or car, when you have a system that is sufficiently complex that problems occur that have rarely or never been anticipated, creativity and intuition become necessary for problem solving. Sheer computational cycles can be insufficient to “think outside the box”. Computers and even the most sophisticated AI do not have intuition and creativity the way humans do. Computers are better at solving problems requiring a massive number of calculations. But not everything can be understood by that methodology. Thus, todays programmer often must take into account how a person will interact with a program and thus design an interface that feels good. Ultimately, all our technology exists to serve us biological entities. So understanding humans and their interactions with vastly different systems is needed more and more often. It’s hard enough for humans to understand each others meaning and intent. Artificial intelligence of the highest magnitude is no where near that miraculous achievement. It’s doubtful that it will be any time soon.

Once our systems and structures no longer advance in complexity, it’s conceivable that AI will begin to understand the inter-workings of machines and humans and our universe. However, there is no forecast that the technology advances and increases in complexity will ever slow down. If anything, the pace is increasing. And so coming up with new meaning, new intuition, new problem solving skills – all of which are uniquely human activities – will continue to be an increasing facet of our lives and jobs. AI and computers can learn what they are created to learn. They can even learn new and more efficient ways to communicate. But going beyond us in innovation – this is currently reserved to humans.

So while the jobs of the future will involve technology more and more, it’s quite unlikely that there will be fewer humans needed. If anything, the radical increase in the number of systems will require a radical increase in the number of skilled, creative technicians and engineers to understand their interaction with the real world beyond what they were designed to do. A person will need to maintain the robot in differing conditions not imagined by the designer since that requires thinking skills and problem solving intuition that machines can’t match.

There was a promise at the beginning of the computer age that computers would do so much of our current tasks that people would not have to work as much and still be able to enjoy a great standard of living. That turned out to be half-true. Indeed our modern technology and information systems do SO much of what used to take humans a lot of time and energy. However, our expectations of what needed to be done increased even more than the tasks that technology took over from us. And that trend continues. If we find a way for a task to be off-loaded from a person to an AI, then we will task the person with doing even more, in less time, than they had to do before the AI came to be. While technology workload has increased, so has human workload because we had the time and creativity that was freed up by the computer now directed elsewhere. This has resulted, of course, in great new breakthroughs and amazing advances that continue to accelerate in pace. Projecting this forward, if we offloaded every single job that people do today to technology in 10 years, we have an even longer human work week doing jobs that we’ve not even imagined in our wildest science fiction fantasies. This is part of the eternal human equation that has continued unabated from the industrial to the information to the cloud age.

Combine this radical increase in complexity with the demographic implosion occurring in the most technologically advanced cultures and the most likely scenario is the current serious labor shortages will continue to increase. As people leave the workforce in greater numbers than they are entering the workforce, the jobs that only humans can do will become increasingly hard to fill. Even the agricultural sector is finding it hard to get enough workers to fill those jobs only humans can do. A Milk Farmer in Oregon, unable to find humans willing to do the back breaking work of milking 1500 cows lamented that he may have to buy the 500,000 milking machine – but that he will need as many technicians to maintain the machine as he would otherwise have to do the milking! The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 3 million new workers will be required in the next 10 years to fill just the low skilled jobs that machines can’t do. But projections are the the total number of new workers at ALL skill levels will be only 1.7 million workers. We will need both new machines (that workers will have to invent, program and maintain) and immigration to not suffer recession or worse. The Conference Board reports that at least 15 years of serious labor shortages are ahead (https://www.marketplace.org/2016/04/19/world/15-years-labor-shortages-predicted-us-economy).

Combine all of these factors together and the most reasonable conclusion is that in order to maintain our standard of living, we need both more humans and more advanced machines to do the increasing amount of work that a highly complex economy requires.

 

Reading on the current and continuing labor shortage.

http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/economy-budget/335896-workers-wanted-skilled-labor-shortage-hinders-business

http://globalriskinsights.com/2017/09/labor-shortage-united-states-dire-issue/

https://www.marketplace.org/2016/04/19/world/15-years-labor-shortages-predicted-us-economy

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/23722

Reading on demographic implosion

The Population Implosion

https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9126/index1.html

http://www.science20.com/news_articles/looming_population_implosion-108334