As an engineer, it is my job and my passion to create and improve technology.
Ever since we started transforming simple rocks into knives and hammers, technology has deeply affected society. We can do things that seemed impossible for humans, like flying, and visiting other worlds. But also, technology has allowed us to do essentially the same things as before, just faster and using less resources, like traveling and feeding. We can even do the same things as before but using many more resources, like with plastic cutlery, but that’s another story.
Engineers keep constantly pushing the boundaries to make everything more efficient through technology, and every once in a while there is a major breakthrough that profoundly affects society. I am talking about advances such as the printing press, the automobile, or the industrial revolution. Almost every technological advance that makes a task more efficient, perhaps with the honorable exception of toilet paper, involves obsolescence. Or as software engineers like to call it, deprecation.
Every time we automate a task, we make it possible to perform such task much faster and (ideally) with less resources, which is in itself a good thing. However, before the automation, there were skilled humans who did those tasks. After the automation, the demand of these skills is decimated. And human jobs is not the only loss in automating tasks, so is craftsmanship. The intuition and creativity of the best craftsmen can’t be automated just yet.
Now the first thing that may come to your mind is machines taking over the jobs of those skilled humans, but there is another level of automation that is more subtle. Think of some major fast food chain of restaurants. As Joel puts it: The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. They have an automated way of making hamburgers, and at the time of this writing, they haven’t replaced most humans with machines (yet). The reason why those hamburgers are not very good is simple: there is a written process (a script, or an algorithm for those geeks reading) that is meant to be successfully followed by people without any cooking skills, even by people with no skills at all.
A natural next step for such a chain of restaurants is to replace some of those humans, who just blindly follow a script, with machines. It is just a matter of time before technology can blindly follow those instructions, but my point is that the process is already automated. Once this natural step is taken, I bet there is going to be some debate around machines stealing jobs from humans. However, those jobs have already been stolen from the skilled humans, the craftsmen. The skilled humans, in this example the cooks, have already been replaced a long time ago with an automation, even if such automation is being performed (for the time being) by other humans.
It is all about scale. Skilled professionals require longer training, and are more scarce. Automation, even if performed by humans, allows a company to scale beyond the supply of skilled professionals. Of course quality suffers in the process, but that can be compensated by lowering prices. There is a huge offer of people without cooking training, and huge offer comes by the hand with lower salaries. The whole point, though, is that now the business can scale much larger than before.
Those automated jobs still being performed by humans create the deceiving perception that there is no need for training or education. There are so many of these jobs that it seems like one can easily get one of them, and skip education altogether. But these jobs have been designed for unskilled humans, which poses a few risks:
- Employees are way more easily replaceable than in qualified jobs, as experience becomes less relevant.
- Once a machine can be as good as a human in following the given instructions, and less expensive, the human becomes unnecessary.
- Although such a job covers the safety level of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it imposes a limit in the higher levels, as it fails to provide challenges and opportunities for personal and professional growth.
One of the main reasons why we hadn’t seen machines take over certain manufacturing jobs so far, is that it has been possible to hire inexpensive labor force. Specifically, less expensive than the cost of engineering those machines. But as emerging markets emerge, and those poor countries that used to manufacture smartphones for the rich countries become less poor, the demand for something less expensive than people also emerges. You know what comes next (yes, hopefully obedient machines). At least we can be sure that machines don’t ever learn how to travel in time, or perhaps they find the past too boring, or maybe their plugs are not compatible with ours…
I could finish this article by recommending people to find jobs that aren’t already automated. That would be extremely easy for me, since I happen to be lucky enough to have a non-routine job (if that is what you want to read, read the appendix of this article). Many people have routine jobs because there is a large demand that we, as a society, have created. Sometimes they don’t even have a choice. It would be very unfair to blame these people, and even more so to tell them, after 20 years following a precise set of instructions, that they need to go back to school, and learn something else because a machine will take over from here.
I choose to finish this article with a hard open question: Once the machine revolution comes, how are we going to guarantee a fair and safe transition for everyone, including those who rightfully chose routine jobs before they were uncool?