Hi, I’m a robot, and I’m here to take your job
In September 1989, GE Chairman Jack Welch flew to Bangalore, India for a breakfast meeting with an Indian delegation that included Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The purpose of his trip was to sell airplane engines and medical equipment to India, but the meeting took an interesting twist along the way.
Rather than buying what GE had to sell, the Prime Minister Gandhi proposed that GE buy software from India. After looking at the amazingly low labor costs, Welch decided instead to outsource portions of its business starting with Bangalore’s first call center. This short meeting led to an outsourcing revolution that would dramatically transform both the Indian and U.S. economies.
We are now on the verge of another business transformation, but this time workers are not being replaced by low cost labor in other countries. Rather, they are being replaced by machines.
Science fiction writers have led us to believe that humanoid robots, with all the nuanced skills and talents of humans would be walking among us today. But rather than some Stepford Wife-like creation appearing at our door and telling us they were taking our jobs, the true job-stealing culprits have been far more subtle, appearing under the guise of automation, without any clear relationship between the machines and the people they’re replacing.
Hidden inside this menacing movement to displace labor is a far more complicated shifting of social order. What appears on the outside to be little more than executives with blinders chasing higher profits may instead be humankind’s biggest opportunity.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been sketching out ideas on how to think about redirecting the energies of people. Here are some thoughts on how this may unfold.
The Displacement Myth
One common fallacy is that people are being replaced by machines. The reality is that machines don’t work without humans. A more accurate description is that a large number of people are being replaced by a smaller number of people using machines.
Automated machines, robots, and other devices are designed to make people more efficient, but there is never a 100% replacement ratio.
Driverless car, as example, will replace the need for drivers but will still require maintenance and repair people, operations managers, logistics people for dealing with failing vehicles, customer service people, etc.
Pilotless planes will still need ground crews, station chiefs, maintenance crews, and more.
Teacherless schools will still need course designers, on-site coaches, software teams in the background, and much more.
Even workerless businesses will still require owners and support staff to direct the efforts of the business.
Yes, it may be conceivable that the human replacement ratio could, on occasion, be dramatic, pushed as high as 1,000 to 1. But most of the time it will be far less. At the same time, a super efficient society will have the ability to accomplish far more than ever in the past.
Moving into an Era of Super Efficient Humans
Today’s workers are being replaced by far more efficient workers who are capable of leveraging machines and other forms of automation.
Rather than having someone show up with a magical machine under their arm that can do everything you currently do, the machines I’m referring to are a combination of computers, software, communication networks, automated devices, mobile apps, and the Internet. Perhaps there’s even a robot or two thrown into the mix.
Low skilled workers of the past are being replaced by those capable of operating a myriad of software and devices, born with the tech instincts to master whatever new machinery, system, or technology gets thrown into the mix.
The bottom line is that the work being done today will require far fewer workers in the future.
So what is it that will fill the labor void? What are the businesses, projects, and opportunities that will open up once the next round of job shedding begins?
The Work of the Future
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein
Rest assured, there will always be more problems than we have solutions for. Since virtually every solution generates additional problems, the area of problem-solving alone has a seemingly infinite number of opportunities that lie ahead.
In addition to fixing our current ailments, many will opt instead to pursue a higher calling, and these will include a myriad of possibilities.
- Cures – In the medical world we need to step past treating the ailments and focus on long-term cures. These include cures for cancer, aides, MS, epilepsy, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and many more. Some will even focus on ending human aging altogether, an area with strong near-term potential.
- Natural Disasters – We have an obligation to somehow mitigate the impact of natural disasters. This will include efforts to stop forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, hail, and flooding to name just a few.
- Correcting Deviant Behavior – Many among us go through traumatizing events that cause personalities to skew far from society’s norm. Others have brain defects that cause outrageous behavior. To some, these are the problems most deserving of their time and attention.
- Colonizing Other Planets – Many believe that the human race cannot survive if all humans only live on one planet. Traveling to distant worlds has been the lifelong dream of many and living in a super efficient society will bring that dream ever closer to reality.
- Ending Extreme Poverty – Too much of humanity is still slipping between the cracks. A fully engaged world puts everyone to work, not just the gifted few.
- Discovery & Exploration – Even with all our scientific advancements we still don’t know what’s inside the earth or what gravity is. At the same time we are discovering new species of fish, animals, insects, and birds on a regular basis. When it comes to discovery and exploration, we’ve only scratched the surface.
- Trailblazing Firsts – Few of us remember the 2nd person to set foot on the moon, or the 2nd person to invent the airplane, or the 2nd one to run a mile in under 4 minutes. We place a disproportionate amount of attention on those who go first, and there are a lot of “firsts” that still need to be accomplished.
- Extending Human Abilities and Capabilities – Human awareness ends at the outer reaches of our capabilities. We have little understanding of distant universes, sub-atomic particles, and other dimensions. Extending human abilities and capabilities will open doors in places we didn’t know doors existed.
No, the robot knocking at your front door is not the boogeyman that so many are dreading. It’s easy to look around and see what exists today, but the true visionaries are looking at what’s missing. And “what’s missing” is where the real opportunities lie.
With today’s automations, jobs are disappearing faster than ever before in history. The only way to compensate for this is to build new businesses and new industries from scratch.
Several studies have shown that every job lost will be replaced many times over with emerging new industries. What’s less clear are the systems needed to fully leverage the opportunities as quickly as they occur.
A fully automated society is a powerful one, and the country with the most responsive systems to adjust to these new realities, and leverage change quickly will rise in prominence on the world stage.
Sometimes that which we fear most has a way of becoming our biggest asset.