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An optimistic view of bot driven automation on the future of jobs

Denis Pombriant Profile picture for user denis_pombriant November 16, 2016
Plenty of well meaning people believe automation and chatbots will eliminate jobs. Maybe but then there is good reason to be optimistic.

Are bots and other technologies taking over the world and relegating us humans to third-rate status? Before you get your knickers in a knot, remember this is typically the result of automation.

Automation does eliminate some jobs but maybe that’s not a bad thing. As we contemplate what to do with the greater freedom the digital disruption will provide, let’s also consider lessons from earlier automation eras.

If you believe Elon Musk and his ilk, then it’s just a matter of time before a bot or other automation replaces you. Musk and many others suggest that some form of universal basic income or UBI, is just around the corner. That’s where the government would provide out of work humans with an income sufficient to support them without the need for work. Why? According to Vinnie Mirchandani, in an article titled Slow Motion Automation

At the 2014 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Gartner projected ‘one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.

Who knows, it could possibly trigger a massive retirement boom. But if past economic evolution is any guide that’s not happening soon. Tell your kids they still need to do their homework.

There are three factors that militate against any UBI free lunch happening including new jobs, new functions, and the 3D’s. Let me explain. Much has been said about the emergence of new jobs as a function of technological advancement.

Take drones as a case in point. We all know from the news that military drones are pilotless aircraft used in combat. The actual pilot sits in a room on the other side of the world flying and occasionally deploying the device’s guns and bombs. But importantly, there was never a job opening for a drone pilot until there was something to fly.

New jobs arise when new capabilities, technical and otherwise, innovate them into existence. There weren’t digital marketers until there was marketing automation, for instance. Heck, computer programmers had no existence until computers. At one point a computer was just someone who was very good at math performing calculations all day.

You may not know this but it took a year to check all of the calculations needed to produce the atomic bomb and that work was all done by humans. Imagine how history might be different if even one of them had a pocket calculator. You get the idea. New technology inspires new jobs. Old jobs don’t automatically go away though some will evaporate over time.

Many jobs just go away. Take stagecoach driver or buggy whip maker as examples. You don’t have to go that far either if you consider farming. In the 19th century nearly everyone farmed but today less than 5 percent of us do and we produce a great deal more food too, thanks to automation like trucks, tractors, and combines.

So that’s new jobs.

New function automation evolves below the level of jobs and I think that’s a big and misunderstood issue today. These functions are labor saving in nature and often personal, which makes them hard to put a price on and impossible to hire out simply because humans cost so much.

Chat bots and washing machines are nice examples. We don’t even think about it, but washing clothes in the nearby river or pond, often without soap, was about as good as it got until the early 20th century. Rich people could hire laundry help but the rest of us were out of luck. So the washing machine is one of those things that does a job but doesn’t take a job away from anyone.

According to an article in Advertising Age, Why Bots Are About to Take Over Business by Jamie Schwartz, chat bots might be doing the same thing in the vendor-customer relationship. Says Schwartz,

Bots allow brands to speak for themselves -- not in some Turin test kind of way or just to wow audiences with Watson-like AI. It is simply about a customer having a conversation with a brand, in the moment, about their wants and needs.

You might say, right there is where jobs are potentially lost but I’d say not so fast. The jobs, or more precisely, the work that these bots replace is often self-service. Previously, if the job didn’t get done you had a combination of unhappy customers, over-worked employees, and some amount of attrition.

So again, the job elimination might be illusory and the bots coming through at least right now are appliances on the order of a dumb washing machine. For example, if you’re in a laughing mood, check out this article in which a Microsoft chat bot became a racist just by imbibing a little too much Twitter. So much for artificial “intelligence”.

It’s true that automation can and often does eliminate jobs, but very often they are jobs that Vinnie Mirchandani, author of Silicon Collar: An Optimistic Perspective on Humans, Machines, and Jobs, refers to as 3D jobs, an acronym for “dull, dirty, and dangerous”. In short, there are jobs that my father did that my kids just won’t. So automation plays a vital role in the march of progress.

This kind of job substitution happens constantly but at varying rates. In periods of high innovation you can see many new jobs evolve and fewer when innovation is low. Low innovation periods happen at the end of economic cycles when we focus on efficiencies (and automation), which naturally squeeze jobs out of the workplace. The good news is that when the next cycle starts it’s because innovation creates new opportunities and new jobs.

Bots represent a new cycle forming but today’s automation is not to be feared so much as the automation just over the horizon that will do much more. I expect tomorrow’s AI will generate net new jobs but they’ll also require additional skills.

So where does the bot and AI revolution place us on the spectrum? I’d say near the end of a cycle. Bots are the ultimate in current known efficiency and a commoditization of what went before. Some jobs are being eliminated but some are 3D in nature and many new functions are simply labor saving on a personal level.

Still we can’t ignore the fact that the pace of automation is causing dislocation where there really ought to be a smoother transition from job to job. At this precise moment UBI might make sense but not as a long-term thing. It’s more of a way through a rough patch.

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