Humans as a workforce are facing extinction. But the population keeps growing.
“Humans as a workforce are facing extinction”.
This line from a podcast titled, “The Future of Creativity: How A.I. Will Free Our Minds” on Ozy, managed to touch an existential nerve in me. With massive swathes of the population still living in the clutches of drudgery and despondency of the old industrial age, it seems almost impossible that algorithms and robots will be taking over our lives anytime soon. Or is it?
From worker to supervisor
Modern industries and factories, although mechanized and roboticized to a large extent, still employ human labour to complete most tasks. These are usually backbreaking jobs like harvesting food, loading cargo into trucks, soldering, mining, carpentry, masonry, and food processing. Even though many of these processes are run with conveyor belt precision, they work in tandem with humans to get the job done. This usually involves humans operating switches and valves, monitoring temperature and pressure gauges, and using machinery to move cargo.
So where does automation and Artificial Intelligence come into the picture?
There’s certainly no imagination required here, as many industries around world are currently transitioning towards it as we speak:
- Car manufacturers have already handed over critical vehicle assembly functions to robots, either partially or completely.
- The warehousing industry has fully transitioned to automated warehouses, with automated guided vehicles being used for storage and retrieval of products. Humans are only there to monitor and supervise the operation.
- The food industry already utilizes the efficiency of AI to sort and grade harvested fruits and vegetables, ensuring that customers end up with only the finest produce.
But most importantly, one of the most incredible ways AI is being utilized today, is in solving the global water crisis. Water scientists are using the combined power of IOT and AI to track real time water usage, fix leakage, and prevent shortages from happening.
Nevertheless, with no curbs on population growth, there’s only a certain extent to which you can “fix” water scarcity problems using artificial intelligence. It will only be a matter of time before the population outstrips supply and leads to a shortage all over again. It’s predicted that with the current rate of population growth, over 1.8 billion people will be residing in areas plagued with water scarcity by 2025.
Some proponents of AI believe that AI will not replace, but instead augment the capability of humans to become efficient at what they do, while at the same time reducing stress, fatigue, and other workplace fatalities that come with stressful jobs.
A cataclysmic change
It is AI and robots who will now be in charge of dumb repetitive tasks. A few examples of such tasks could be customer service representative, call center jobs, cashiers, train drivers (this is already in effect in many places), and many other tiring and frustrating forms of hard labour. The amount of stress, pressure, and fatigue these people go through on a daily basis is unparalleled with any other form of mental labour. They are more prone to fatigue, lethargy, laziness, and frustration as their job performance score is based on how they solve the hardest of problems in the shortest amount of time.
But it is this very laziness and frustration that will be valued as key human attributes in a robot driven world, says Liselotte Lyngso, the founding partner of Future Navigator. We will no longer need to squeeze people like lemons, the way we do today, that inevitably leads to burn out, stress, depression, and lost productivity hours. Machines will take over these tasks. They do not get tired, and can run 24/7.
On the flip side with all these predictions comes the impending threat of layoffs on a massive scale. However, that need not be the case. On the contrary, humans will no longer need to be the machines we once were. Liselotte claims that creativity actually stems from laziness and frustration.
Mundane and routine work
Security guards, drivers, delivery executives, call center representatives, cashiers, and waiters.
What’s the one thing that links all these jobs together?
Yes, that’s right. They’re boring. They’re repetitive. And not to mention how tedious they can get at times. And they can only go away (being promoted) if you complete gigantic volumes of them. Basically, all these jobs have one thing in common. They’re quantity based. They do not require any special skill or qualification, neither do they need loads of investment into education. It’s the “doing” that matters. In this sector, people learn on the job. Its the daily experiences with different scenarios and situations that later allow them to become managers and run the show themselves. But this comes only with years of toil and hard work under the sun(wind, rain, and everything else), especially for delivery agents.
They also happen to be the same jobs with some of the highest rates of attrition in the industry. Fatigue, sickness, loneliness, lifestyle diseases, and a lack of a social life are a part and parcel of these jobs.
A glimpse of the future
But what if we could do away with such meaningless work entirely?
It’s not like they are the most sought after jobs out there anyway. Enter Artificial Intelligence. Where your customer service rep is a chat bot, your amazon delivery executive is a drone, and your cashier is, well, you yourself (with self-check out). Additionally, the security guard for your house is not really a human guard, but a set of interlinked devices all communicating with each other through the Internet of things (IOT).
Marc Goodman, in his book ‘Future Crimes’ gives us an idea about the Internet of Things. He says “ We will be living in a world where everything is programmable and interactive. Objects will become smart and be able to describe their own location, proximity, velocity, temperature, flow, acceleration, ambient sound, vision, force, load, torque, pressure, and interactions.” And at the same time, (in another chapter) he says “when everything is connected, everyone is vulnerable”.
The rise of AI will usher in a new knowledge revolution, one that is based on an expert level understanding of artificial intelligence, rather than on qualitative tasks. However, this is directly on a collision course with the current rate of population growth. Even at present, the knowledge gap is so wide, that as per Dr James, the CEO for global futures, “In the US alone, we cant fill the better part of 1–3 million jobs because they demand a certain amount of technological skills that people don’t have”.
Liselotte Lyngso further adds that the present generation would do better focusing on the skills that a robot cannot do. These would be unique skill sets that cannot be learnt by or taught to machines. They include better communication, soft skills, leadership, team building, and emotional intelligence.
We have to embrace the things that humans, not machines do, says Dr James. And we cannot ignore the fact that there will be repercussions to such drastic changes being introduced to the industrial ecosystem.
In an article posted to the ‘Surviving Tomorrow’ publication, Jared Brock explains how the rich are facilitating the extinction of traditional jobs, with the transition to automation technology:
“Think about it: Corporate automation is expected to wipe out 40% of jobs in the next 15 years and leave half of us economically non-competitive against AI. Yet prices will continue to rise, while the corporatocracy will continue to devalue our money and destroy purchasing power by printing zero-value-backed digital currency. And the rich are going to continue to offshore their wealth like never before.”
He foretells of a very dystopian future with the following line:
They’re preparing for an Armageddon of their own creation.
On the flip side
Humans will gain a much more respectable status, out of the clutches of drudgery of the industrial era. Eventually, project managers will be juggling their managerial skill sets among not one, but a varied set of subordinates such as robots, AI programs, and humans, especially a set of humans with a far greater level of sophistication and individualization, says Lyngso.
As boomers and Gen X’ers come of age, service jobs will proliferate more than ever. They will be needing medical, financial, and senior citizen, and all other ancillary services, a majority of which will be fulfilled by their very own children, the millennials who would by that time be in their 40’s. This puts millennials in a fix as to whether they should care for their kids or for their aging parents. Technology again seems to be the go-to strategy with regards to the former, as screens come to the rescue yet again. The average child now watches screens for up to 6 hours a day, and this is an epidemic of a different kind, in and by itself. With millennials left to juggle a career, a relationship, a family, and their aging old parents, they are the most stressed out generation today. Most live in nuclear families, or in other cities and parents cannot help even if they want to.
The very things that humans find boring and mundane, can be done by machines with clockwork precision. which is why it becomes all the more imperative that today’s workers enhance their knowledge by getting certified in machine learning and AI. They must work hard today in order to stay relevant tomorrow.
We must also be cognizant of the fact that when one prepares for the future, one creates it. So when more humans and businesses move towards an automated world, the more the adoption of appropriate technology.
So, will humans reign supreme and prevent the invasions of the robots?
Or will we conveniently bend over backwards and look the other way when things go wrong with AI, and allow it into every sphere of our lives?
Only time will tell.