At least that’s what Foxconn, the largest manufacturer of consumer electronics in the world thinks when they announced to shareholders that they would replace 60,000 workers with robots. Over 2.5 million financial and IT services jobs in the US are on their way towards obsolescence. Radiologists have already been bested by machine learning algorithms capable of reading a single X-Ray a thousand times over to ensure accuracy in the same time it takes a doctor to review it once. Artificial intelligence doesn’t just affect entry level employment. It affects all strata of workers. And the prognostication of economic outcomes range from apocalyptic to utopian. Proponents of the beneficial AI movement are certain that technology will allow for a true renaissance of creativity, where all people are free to explore their passions while enjoying the fruits of machine labour. A dystopian view has AI dependency running amok, with power centralized to a small cadre of corporate or state elites and mass unemployment and despair.
In short, nobody knows.
And yet around the table at a dinner party, all we talk about is what we think our kids should be when they grow up. How our kids are brilliant and what their test scores are and how we can best prepare them up for the best jobs. We look at our kids and try to predict whatever future we think might exist when they emerge from school a decade or two down the line when we ourselves, have no certainty of what is going to happen to our own jobs next year. In the 80’s, the average time to transfer an information worker’s career worth of ‘expertise’ was about 30 years. Today, it’s about 2 to 3 years. Experience and education has already been priced-in and discounted by the going replacement rate of knowledge, which by all accounts, is negligible in an environment of democratized information. I’ve worked with hundreds of companies in the past ten years. Not one burst into flames with the departure a ‘key’ employee. Knowledge and the ability to do-a-thing is a commodity and as with all commodities, is a cost-of-goods sold that will be continually devalued with technology.
But none of this is new. Artificial intelligence and machine learning approaching critical mass is no different than the original Agricultural Revolution that birthed early civilizations. It will be just as disruptive as the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s and the Personal Computing Revolution of the 1990’s. Obsolete jobs were replaced by many new ones. The only difference this time is the speed of change and the pace of adoption. Our kids are born in an age of computing where we are quickly approaching the limits of Moore’s Law. They view momentous advances in science, medicine and technology as unremarkable feeds on Twitter and Instagram. Just as the gamers and computer tinkerers of the 70’s and 80’s are seemingly running the world today, our kids, more than ever, are crafting the digital world of tomorrow because they are all tinkerers. If you deem it your parental responsibility to protect your kids from technology because you yearn for the good ol’ days of less connectivity, note that Socrates said this about reading and writing:
“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”
Every parent thinks the next thing will ruin their kids. It happened with the printing press, with Mozart and Paganini, with the phonograph, with comics, with radio, with TV and now with the internet and connected devices. And parents were wrong every single generation about the impact of technology and media. So what makes us think we know what we are talking about now, especially with regards to what our kids are going to do in a decade? We are seeing the technological landscape change in real time. No matter how much wisdom and foresight we think we have, we don’t actually know as predictions are becoming less and less accurate due to the pace of change. Even the folks I have the privilege of working with at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning research shrugged when I asked them about specifics. In fact, they admit that due to the pace and open-source nature of AI research and development, not to mention the rapid growth of quantum computing, they have no idea where they are going to be in a few years. “Hopefully employed,” is what one researcher working on neural networks told me.
I’ve long been a proponent of absolute free-market labour to the point where I believe each and every one of us should view ourselves as our own business, equipped with the ability to create, sell and deliver. Whether we work with our own businesses or contribute labour and talent to a larger one, the moment we all view ourselves as free agents, able to come and go and properly prepare ourselves as such, is the moment we empower ourselves to create real income security. 50% of the global economy is trending towards the gig economy in which half of all income earned are by freelancers, and independent contractors doing a specific thing for a specific time. If you have 20 customers and 3 leave, you still have 17 sources of income. If you have one employer, your entire financial wellbeing is from a single source. Why on earth would we continue to tell our kids that this is the way to go? I’ve written the same message multiple times across multiple entries; Don’t tell your kids to find a job. Tell them to create one. The current state and trajectory of technology and information means that facts, knowledge and experience will continue to count for less. Salaries on whole, have remained stagnant for over a decade if not more. And as labour becomes more available and undervalued, so too will downward pressure on employment income. This is especially true in sectors where human labour and speed is deemed inefficient compared to AI.
So what do we teach our kids?
Tell them their creativity, ideas and ability to communicate is what is valuable. Teach them that whatever facts and skills they know is far less important than the judgement, pragmatism and adaptability they employ to connect-the-dots. And most important, tell them that compassion, empathy and humanity is what is needed most in the era of machine dominance. I am on the side of the benevolent AI movement as are the partners, customers and academics I am working with. Technology is amazing and it will be disruptive. Jobs that have been replaced by technology are gone forever. We have to stop telling our kids to only aim for what we can imagine based on what we know and tell them to create a path to what they actually want. And it’s ok to keep changing what you want as you go forward so long as you keep connecting the dots while looking backwards. More than ever, it’s critical to encourage our kids to pursue their creative passions because it’s how they monetize what they love that will provide them with the meaning and security that many of our generation and prior found so illusory. The marketplace is more efficient than ever. For those willing to embrace the available opportunities and information around them, the future will be amazing.