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Automation

The Revolution Will Be Automated

In post-apocalyptic science-fiction, the world is usually devastated by one of two tropes: nuclear war, or a plague of zombies. Recently, doomsayers like Elon Musk have added a third scenario -- in which machines become more intelligent than their makers and take over the world, Skynet-style.

The reality is that the end is now in sight for the economic order that has been in place for centuries, and a massive disruption of society is almost certain to result. This upheaval won't be precipitated by a single, spectacular occurrence but by the arrival of a number of discrete technologies -- including AI, machine learning, telemetry, robotics and predictive analytics -- that will come together, resulting in wrenching changes that could displace half the US workforce within the next two decades.

The collective label for that confluence of technology change agents is automation -- and failure to get to grips with its economic impacts will have dire consequences.

Media coverage of this area has focused mainly on the development of self-driving cars (putting the "auto" in "automobile," if you will). But the number of human drivers who will lose their jobs at companies like Uber due to automated/autonomous cars makes up a tiny fraction of the total number of the jobs now performed by humans that will disappear when automation gets up to speed.

With the exception of "creative" positions in the arts, entertainment, and media, there are almost no industries where the human workforce will not be eviscerated by this trend.

In the industry that Light Reading covers -- telecommunications -- sources say that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), the world's largest service provider, is planning to use automation to eliminate a third of its workforce (70,000 people). Other telecom service providers that I've spoken to are looking to use automation to cut their employee count by half or more.

Manufacturing, retail, energy, will all be turned upside down by automation, but the technology doesn't discriminate between blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Education, healthcare, financial services (traders in particular) and accountancy all comprise a mix of tasks that can be automated more efficiently and far less expensively than using human beings. (There's bad news, also, for those hoping to safeguard their future by retraining as a software programmer: Soon, the code will be smart enough to write, update, and improve itself independently of human involvement).

Some economists have argued that the elimination of repetitive tasks by automation will actually result in the creation of more jobs, not less, citing the example of bank ATMs to make their case. And it's true that after the introduction of ATMs in the 70s, the number of bank tellers decreased for a while, then grew again as banks found new roles for them in expanded human customer service teams.

So it's important to understand why, in this case, they are utterly wrong. "Automation" is not a single clever invention, like the ATM, or the spinning mule. Instead, automation comprises a slew of next-generational technologies which when combined not only replace and improve on a specific operation or task, but have the intelligence to improve its operation over time, completely without human involvement. This is unprecedented in the history of mankind. And it is a dangerous technology cocktail.

There are a variety of estimates floating around as to the impact of automation on human employment, with the consensus being that around half of today's "human jobs" will be eliminated by automated processes over the next 20 or 30 years.

Think about that for a moment: one in every two people who you know that are working today, becoming unemployed, with little or no prospects of being re-hired.

So what's the likely outcome of an unemployment apocalypse where 65 million Americans lose their jobs, and the unemployment rate goes from 4.5% today to 55% in 2037?

In the first few years, those who are already rich will get a lot richer, as publicly traded companies use automation to massively cut operational expense and increase their profitability, with a commensurate leap in share price. On the other side of the fence, however, and as tens of millions lose their jobs, burn through their savings, and settle into the reality of a future without any meaningful income, we will see a massive increase in wealth inequality -- to unsustainable levels.

History is unambiguous on this one: When the gulf between society's haves and have-nots becomes too wide, the result is a revolution (see: China, Russia, France, America, Serbia et al). Since automation is a global phenomenon, the risk of revolution is also worldwide. However, the US is especially vulnerable, for three reasons: we are the hotbed of both automation development and deployment; we are fixated on driving profit at any cost; and 30% of our citizenry own one or more guns.

Our current president came to power on a platform of creating millions of new jobs. The irony is that without some action to safeguard the human workforce he may end up being the president who oversees not only the beginning of mass unemployment in North America, but the demise of North America itself.

In the long run, accelerated automation will result in a reshaping of all world economies, to the point that the nature of human work will shift away from "jobs" and toward ... something else. What that something else is, though, is anybody's guess right now. And that's probably a shift that happens well into the second half of this century. It's the transition period that will be wrenching and potentially very ugly.

— Steve Saunders

Steve is the Founder of Light Reading. He is also the Secretary of the New IP Agency (NIA), a not-for-profit industry organization lobbying for responsible deployment of automation technology around the globe.

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