The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating story today about the potential impact of robots and automation on the workplace.
Gartner, a technology research firm, has estimated that a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade.
Bill Gates has stated that automation threatens all manner of workers, from drivers to waiters to nurses. “I don’t think people have that in their mental model,” he said.
The question as to what happens to all of those people who are replaced by automation is the focus of monthly meetings at MIT between scientists and economists. While the meetings cover a wide range of topics, one that caught my eye was a discussion about what happens if there is no meaningful work for humans.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.
It’s getting harder and harder to think of jobs that a robot can’t do as good or better than a human.
Henrik Christensen, head of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s robotics program and a specialist in industrial robots, believes that most truck drivers won’t have jobs in 10 years.
Others believe the transition from human to automation will take much longer, and point to the banking industry as an example. ATMs have proliferated over the past 30 years, but the number of tellers only dropped from 484,000 to 472,000 from 1985-2007.
I remember reading a story when I was in grade school that talked about how one day cars will no longer need a driver and would thus allow us to work, read, or rest while we were in transit. The cars would all be controlled by technologies that would virtually eliminate accidents as well. That story was from 45 years ago, and it seems as if we are just now on the cusp of driverless cars finally becoming a reality.
Whether it takes a couple of years or a couple of decades, it seems as if such changes are inevitable. So where does that leave you and I?
On the one hand it may seem alluring to think of a life of leisure, having robots do all of our work. But at the same time many of us define ourselves by the work that we do. If we are no longer working, who are we?
And if many of us are no longer working, what do we do to generate an income so that we can support ourselves and our families?
I am sure such questions were asked every time there was a major technology breakthrough, from the printing press, to the ATM. But somehow, humans survived, even flourished, through all of these changes.
So while we can never predict the future, we can certainly learn from the past and prepare for such changes.
And I take great comfort in knowing, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, humans always find a way.