This morning in The Washington Post, I read yet another wrongheaded article, this one titled “What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Universal Basic Income,” about what to do with all of the unemployed people that the coming wave of robots will displace. The author was right in that the idea of a Universal Basic Income is wrong headed largely because it appears based on a belief that those on this incredibly low income will voluntarily retrain or suddenly become entrepreneurs, off building the next Google. That’s not to say some won’t; clearly there have been those who have risen to wealth and success from families on welfare, but they are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. Where I take exception to the piece is the common mistake that only low-level workers will be displaced. This belief appears founded in wishful thinking by folks who set and spread it, and who clearly are not in this at-risk group.
Let’s talk about what is coming and why getting our arms around this will be unusually difficult.
Robotic Displacement Is Understated
A few years back at a Dell event, a couple of researchers talked about the next industrial revolution from their book, “The Second Machine Age.” Based on their research, everything we thought we knew was coming apparently was wrong. They found that given robots would increasingly become intelligent and that they were particularly good at analysis, decision making, particularly complex decision making, would be one of the places where the greatest return would be found.
If you look at where intelligence is being applied, it is in financial institutions to speed up trades and reduce fraud, jobs done by financial analysts and specialized investigators. It is being used in medicine to help diagnose complex illnesses, jobs done by very experienced doctors. It is being used to fly drones, and drive cars and trucks, as expected, but this also means a reduced need for law enforcement, insurance investigators and judges (the cars and trucks won’t break the law).
One interesting claim in the article was that these new intelligent machines won’t be able to do creative jobs or interact with people socially. Yet we are advancing robots in art and Google has a project to create romantic avatars that people will fall in love with. Robots may become the perfect human interface for a company because they don’t get sick, don’t have mood shifts, don’t get angry, and can consistently apply best practices to interactions.
In some cases, the analysis suggests that some of the early job losses will be far higher in the food chain, largely because it is easier to justify a $20K to $100K robot against a salary of equal or greater amount then it is to justify a robot replacing a worker at minimum wage.
Many of the current projections may be upside down. Rather than needing to retrain hourly workers, or groups defined as “not us,” we may need to retrain ourselves to survive this coming machine age.
But retrain at what?
Training as a Long-Term Career Goal
At least initially, robots and AIs will be focused on things people believe they will be good at, and that may give the rest of us some time. And, as noted above, they’ll likely be focused where the greatest return is, where they can either enhance or replace expensive employees or where one robot can replace a lot of low-paid employees.
This means everyone is at risk. We likely should focus now on our ability to retrain. The skill we are all going to mostly need is flexibility, and this will be a problem because most of us currently don’t like change and will work to avoid it. Most of us still live very close to where we were raised, have never had a major career change in our adult lives, and if we were offered an opportunity outside our comfort zone that required substantial training, we’d refuse it.
This tends to come with age. The older we are, the more set in our ways of doing things we become, but it is that very thing that could eventually make us unemployable and cause us to miss an opportunity to avoid being hurt by the coming changes.
This suggests the best defense for the coming change isn’t to train for any one new job but to focus on constantly learning new skills, changing up our hobbies and interests, and expanding our horizons by forcing ourselves to consider positions other than our own.
Rather than training to do one thing, we instead train to be good at being trained. This will reduce our fear of change, increase our abilities to move to new opportunities, and massively reduce our stress when faced with a critical change.
Wrapping Up: Train to Be Flexible
For some reason, I’m remembering my first martial arts teacher. A little old Japanese man, he took the biggest guy in the class, a guy who should have been able to pick the instructor up, and created a fascinating example that is pertinent. He asked the student to move him, and the instructor was unmovable. He didn’t use force; he flexed so the larger man couldn’t apply his full strength. Just like that student, fighting this change or trying to ignore it will likely end badly. Learning how to bend so the change doesn’t break us, and being able to move easily to new opportunities is likely the skill that will be the most valuable over the coming decades.
The people who will be left behind won’t be in any skills group, they’ll be those who can’t bend with the changes and can’t reform themselves around new opportunities. Turning our ability to change into an asset, rather than the liability it currently is, will likely assure we survive this coming Second Machine Age.
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+