I just finished The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and The Future of Humanity and I was impressed with the breadth and depth of this book. Author Byron Reese, publisher of GigaOm, does an excellent job of framing how we got to where we are, what the job risks may be, and what the future will probably look like. On this last I expect he’ll be wrong, not because of a lack of work or focus, but simply because there are way too many moving parts at the moment to make an accurate prediction. However, regardless of the accuracy of the prediction, the book points out areas that you should be aware of to anticipate the 4th and 5th technological ages and that should allow you to substantially mitigate the related risks and prepare for what will undoubtedly change in how we work, and what services are available to us personally and collectively. And we better learn to be flexible because the world is about to be massively changed.
IBM Is the Big Company to Watch
A lot of smaller companies are doing interesting work in this space but the one big company that seemed to come up a lot in the book was IBM. Its work on Watson and efforts to define the related problems have largely led this industry and forced a focus on enhancing employees rather than replacing them. This is an important distinction because enhancement makes employees more valuable, helping assure their support for the offerings and limiting catastrophic disruption.
IBM’s leadership is important because it lends a significant amount of maturity to the process and that may be one of the biggest protections right now against the kinds of problems that leaders like Elon Musk and Bill Gates have highlighted.
Job and Career Risk
The book goes to great lengths and covers a substantial amount of history to showcase that as technology advances we rarely have the mass layoffs that were predicted in those same timeframes. However, the book also makes it clear that the rate of change we are currently undergoing is unprecedented. There is always a risk, but due to this huge rate of change, this time it could be far tougher. The good news is that while a lot of jobs will be lost, a huge number of jobs will also be created. This is because the number of jobs is only limited by our collective imaginations. We will get more free time because many traditional jobs will go away, but with that time we can create more interesting careers, explore more effectively our unmet job needs, and find a new job that we might enjoy even more.
This does suggest that flexibility may be the key skill to ensure our continued gainful employment. Given that huge numbers of us are inflexible in this regard, that will create even bigger opportunities for those of us who are flexible. The book does provide a way to calculate job risk and, in general (since it is based largely on economic models), it should be very accurate. However, it should be noted that most that are creating AI solutions aren’t using this model, creating some interesting discords.
The tool largely points out that the lower the pay, the more unique, or the more varied a job is, the more likely it will not, at least initially, be at risk from artificial intelligence (AI). The more expensive the job is, the more common, and the more focused the job, the more likely it is to be replaced. For instance, a radiologist, a relatively high-paying job requiring a lot of focused training but not much movement or breadth, would be on the short list. A waiter position, a relatively low-paying job that requires mobility and a surprisingly broad skill set (food placement, quality control, guest interaction), would be at relatively low risk. If you do something that is unique, like repair old clocks, you likely have no risk because the demand for that skill set is so low.
I should point out that this isn’t absolute. Actors should be relatively safe, but Morgan Freeman is funding an effort to create artificial actors. And truck drivers would be safe, given that the cost would include a new truck to automate the job, but there is a critical shortfall of drivers at the moment and it dovetails nicely with autonomous cars so there is a ton of focus on autonomous trucks (the unions aren’t happy, but this shortage of truck drivers has been highlighted as creating a massive future recession so fixing that has a very high priority).
This also points out that this job risk is fluid and that being aware of AI research in your area of specialty would be prudent.
Wrapping Up: More Interesting Stuff
This book is kind of fascinating in that it contains information on ongoing research that was new to me. For instance, countries that have deployed robotics aggressively have had less labor loss in manufacturing than those that did not, likely because related business growth flowed to these more efficient companies and away from those locked in the past. Given that this is often due to unions, it would mean that the union strategy of fighting automation was wrong headed. There was also an interesting study on plant telepathy, which suggested telepathy is real and that indicated we, as a race, were only recently able to see colors, suggesting our capabilities are advancing rather significantly.
Overall, the advantage of reading this book is that it is a comprehensive primer on AI and after reading it you should be able to hold your own on a wide variety of AI-related subjects and become aware of the conflicting arguments and theories. Knowledge can do a lot to alleviate fear and there is a lot of fear surrounding AI at the moment. In the end, I found the book a brilliant read and recommend it highly.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+