I am a big fan of realistic science fiction movies. The first two Terminator movies had very few flaws or unbelievable technology. Aliens was way ahead of its time. Avatar was awash with believable details. Aside from the fact that all are James Cameron flicks, they have, as you would expect, realistic advanced technology. A couple of the more cool pieces were the Mitsubishi MK-6 Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) in Avatar, and the Caterpillar P-5000 Work Loader that Ripley used in the final battle in Aliens. Last week Amazon’s Jeff Bezos piloted a robotic “suit” that bore an uncanny resemblance to the MK-6 AMP.
Are we one step away from this technology becoming mainstream? If so, will a Terminator scenario take place where cybernetic organisms, androids, and robots are hunting us down in a dystopian future? We’re not there yet, but what is happening is actually a little more insidious, and those who could be affected by this global takeover by the machines might surprise you.
Manufacturing jobs in the United States are in steep decline. From 2000 to 2010, about 5.6 million such jobs left the U.S. and since 1980, they’ve dropped by nearly 40%. Listening to rhetoric during the last presidential campaign, one might be led to believe that everything from NAFTA to China has caused those jobs to go away. In reality, only about 13% were lost to foreign factories. The rest were lost to, you guessed it, machines. In fact, when you look at the numbers, it’s even worse than that. During that time frame from 1980 to the present, manufacturing output from the U.S. increased by more than 250%. In essence, the amount of manufacturing jobs being done by real people dropped by about 75% when compared to the manufacturing work being done. So don’t blame China and Mexico, blame THE MACHINES!
One of the common digs against the people who have lost their manufacturing jobs is: adapt or die – get retrained in something else! Aside from the fact that it’s just not that easy, the number of people who could be affected in a similar manner will be going up, compliments of, you guessed it, THE MACHINES!
Yesterday: Manufacturing – Tomorrow: What’s Next?
Manufacturing was an easy target for those evil machines because much of the processes tend to be repetitive. When the same thing is done over and over, a machine can do things much more efficiently than a human. In fact, it costs an average of 65% less for machines to do manufacturing jobs, even when you include the cost of operators, maintenance and parts. What other jobs are in danger? First on the list is mining. However, putting mining in the “future” category is a little disingenuous. In fact, while a certain president campaigned on bringing back coal jobs due to loosening regulations, the truth is that many mining jobs, like those in manufacturing, have been lost to automation. While coal production has dropped a fair amount in the last years, it has been fueled primarily by the glut of other energy sources (like low cost oil), and many jobs have been lost to automation. In a story about one mine in Australia, The Guardian reports that the iron mine can operate trucks and other machinery remotely, taking mines from employing 5000 – 10000 to 500 – 1000. Mining jobs are going away, but don’t blame regulations, blame THE MACHINES!
There are many other job sectors that are either already being affected or will be affected by automation and machines. Construction practices have been made more efficient by technology, but one can see a future where robotic workers take the place of humans doing everything from crane operation to pouring cement. With respect to infrastructure, it’s not hard to envision robotic workers filling potholes or fixing bridges. Amazon is already testing delivery of packages with drones. Will UPS drivers be a thing of the past? Will they be made obsolete by THE MACHINES!?
“I’m Not in a Manual Labor Job – I’m Safe”
The takeover by machines is not just about replacing the miner, the manufacturer, the builder. In December, the White House released a report titled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” I’d love to link to the report on the White House web site so you could read it yourself, but the new White House took it down. Yes, it was taken down – the 21st century equivalent of the big book burning – sigh. Fortunately the Obama team was prescient enough to archive their documents, and I was able to find it here. Anyway, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a broad term that encompasses technologies that enable computers to learn and draw on historic data to make complex decisions. Just as repetitive manual labor tasks were among the first to fall to automation, so will repetitive analytical tasks fall to AI. Things like doing taxes, minor legal filings, governmental tasks like inspections, autonomous vehicles (hello taxi drivers), autonomous soldiers, even IT and code development – the list goes on – will fall to machines. These are all things that we could see happening within a decade. What will machines be doing for us beyond that, and what does that mean for many in our population?
What Jobs are Safe from the Takeover?
The common theme on either the machine or AI takeover is repetition. The types of jobs that will be the last to fall are those that rely on artistic design, product development, authoring, architecture – the things that rely on human intuition and life experience. Yet note that I said “the last to fall.” In the far future, I’m not sure anything is safe. The big question is: What will we humans do?