Could technology replace you at work and put wealth in the hands of the few?

Innovation Hub
Robot with a face

There have always been fears about new technologies in the workplace. But what if automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are bearing down on us at a faster rate than we ever anticipated? 

Sure, jobs change over time. Doctors now use lasers, MRIs, and CAT scans — tools they didn’t have 50 years ago. Lawyers now have computer databases to look up old court cases.

And some jobs don’t change, but instead start to disappear. Like bank tellers — most of whom lost their jobs to ATMs. Or drug store clerks, who are increasingly pushed aside by automatic check-out.

But a couple of MIT scientists, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, argue that we've barely seen anything yet. Their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, claims technology is rapidly reshaping our economy. And the next wave of automation will fundamentally alter the way wealth is distributed. 

In an age in which the most profitable companies are becoming smaller and smaller — think Instagram, which only had thirteen employees when it was purchased by Facebook — we’re moving toward a “winner takes all” economy where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very wealthiest people, whether they be pop stars, computer programmers, or app developers.

"These same technologies that create wealth, they also automate a lot of tasks," Brynjolfsson adds. He uses the example of tax preparation — a job that used to require a college-educated professional, but that can now be done from home with relatively cheap software, like TurboTax. 

"Technology can simultaneously make the pie a lot bigger [and] create record wealth — but also there's no economic law that says everybody needs to benefit from that," explains Brynjolfsson. 

"Technology is now demonstrating these skills and abilities that used to belong to human beings alone," says McAfee. "The historical pattern of technology creating as least as many jobs as it destroys is not giving me a whole lot of confidence these days."

According to McAfee and Brynjolfsson, technology has become so advanced that it will soon have the ability to replace scores of jobs performed by humans — and not just the ones you might expect. Check out this recap of a fantasy football league, for example:

"With the 2013 Fantasy Football Draft in the books, Regret Tractor emerged as the clear winner and is projected to go 11-2 this season. Raw Tonnage got the most value out of their draft (compared to ADP), while The Elitists seemed to implode early on, going against both ADP and Experts picks to cobble together their team."

That was not written by a sports reporter. In fact, it wasn’t really “written” at all. It was automatically generated by a computer from raw data at a company called Automated Insights.

So is anyone immune from the machine takeover?

"The ones that have been relatively secure have been people like gardeners, hairdressers, preschool teachers — [jobs] that involve high-touch [and] manipulating the physical world in a way that machines can't yet do," explains Brynjolfsson. 

Salespeople and nurses might also be job categories relatively immune from the coming machine age. But doctors might not be so lucky.

"By one measure, a doctor would have to read [for] about 160 hours a week to keep up with all the relevant developments in her speciality. It's not possible — it's asking too much. Feed all that information into Watson [IBM's cognitive computer] and we'll have a phenomenally good diagnostician. And that's a job that we do not think of as routine or middle class or in that technology bullseye — but it may be," explains McAfee. 

"We have a hard time thinking of almost any jobs that machines aren't going to be able to do," Brynjolfsson says. 

So once technology automates our jobs and changes the pattern of wealth, where will the rest of us be? McAfee says it’s always easier to see the “destruction” part of creative destruction than it is to see the creation. But he remains an optimist.

“We’re going to be kicking back and enjoying the fruits and benefits of this automated economy and the stuff that it generates for us,” he says.

His vision of the future is of a “Digital Athens” where humans are freed from repetitive labor to think big thoughts and generate important ideas — something robots haven’t learned how to do … yet.

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Innovation Hub, a weekly program interviewing the most creative thinkers of our time.

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