In June, I attended INSEAD, France’s premier MBA School, for a week of executive education. Basically, we were taught change management, strategy, and finance. At one point, we were discussing the consequences of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. Over the last couple of years, a lot of articles and books have been published on this subject. Quite a lot of those take on a distinctly pessimistic perspective, claiming that squillions of jobs will be lost in the process. And indeed, a Chinese firm has announced that it plans to build the first robot-only factory site. Additionally, if you want to know the likelihood of being replaced by a computer in the medium run, please check this article on Fortune.com.
Now the fascinating question is: Is this a good or a bad development? The answer may, in fact, depend on the timeframe we´re looking at – and on the scope we´re considering. Have a look at this “arithmetic” problem that was given to us by INSEAD profesor Kevin Kaiser:
If a farmer with a tractor can do the work of 100 farmers without a tractor in the same amount of time: What´s the value of the tractor? The answer is: 99 farmers that are able to do something else.
This is basically what has happened over the last 1000 years or so. In the middle-ages, only a tiny fraction of the population was not working in farming. Even though, mankind could barely produce enough food to sustain itself. Today, only one percent of the U.S. population is working in that profession. The output per farmer has multiplied twelvefold – and that only covers the timeframe between 1950 and today. Just try to imagine the magnitude of the difference between a medieval and a modern farmer.
Now what has happened to those several hundred millions of people that aren’t farmers any more? Did they all become “unemployed farmers” and starved to death? The answer is no, of course. Over time, lots of them became craftsmen or merchants, later on, factory workers, service agents, psychologists, game designers, bloggers …, [fill in whatever you like]. In short: they did something else – at least in the long run!
The idea that technological advancements will lead to large-scale unemployment is known as luddite fallacy, named after early 19th century textile workers in England, who protested against the implementation of mechanical stocking frames, culminating in riots and the destruction of factory equipment. It´s called “fallacy” because the machine breakers turned out to be wrong. They (mostly) did not starve: they did something else instead.
The fallacy is based on the assumption that there´s a limited amount of work in this world – so when a part of that whole is automated, it is “lost” to humans. This assumption is most likely wrong. We´re constantly developing new jobs (mostly services) that fulfill certain needs arising with the arrival of new technologies. By example, this article lists ten jobs that did not exist ten years ago. My question is: Why should this development suddenly come to an end?
Yes, it is true. Millions of people will lose their job to a computer or robot over the next 20 to 30 years. And from the vantage point of the individual, there will be tragedies. Some people clearly will not be able to cope. But: In the long run, people will do something else. They will not sit around and wait until they starve. They will do something else.
And again, it is true. For a lot of us, it is not clear as of now what this “something else” might be like. But I am a die-hard optimist. I am firmly convinced that whatever remains (or arises) will be more fulfilling than those jobs that are going extinct. Let´s be honest: Those jobs in that robot factory in China: how satisfying would they have been for human workers? And even if, somewhere in the near future, algorithms will be able to write news articles that are comparable in quality to those of human journalists, those journalists will find more creative work that cannot be matched by a computer program.
Recently, the German “new work guru” and former IBM executive Prof. Gunther Dueck said in a keynote:
“The simple part of work will disappear – for all of us. What remains is the challenging (or: sophisticated) part – for all of us.
Let´s all find out what the sophisticated part of our work is – the one that is truly creative and fulfilling: the one that cannot be matched by a silicone chip.
If you want to know more, please read this article by Forbes contributor and new work expert Steve Denning: The ‘Jobless Future’ Is A Myth. Another angle on that story is provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Markoff. In an intriguing long-read for Edge.org titled The Next Wave, he makes the point that we´re probably overestimating what artificial intelligence will be able to achieve in the near future. By way of example, he showcases results from a recent robotics contest, where most machines weren’t even able to properly used a door handle (“If you’re worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed”).