Machines Taking Jobs: Why This Time Is Different

Will AI and robotics revolutionize human labor or not? 

More than half of all US jobs could be disrupted by automation in the next several decades; at least that’s our opinion. About half the people we talk to disagree. Those that disagree think AI will open up new job opportunities by enhancing human abilities. A common element to their argument is that we’ve always had technical innovation and human work has evolved with it. A few examples would be the cotton gin, the printing press, and the automobile. All of these inventions threatened jobs of their era, but they ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed. So why is this time different?

Because, for the first time in history, we don’t need to rely on human intelligence to operate the machines of the future. The common denominator among those three examples and countless other technical innovations is that they were simply dumb tools. There was no on-board intelligence. Humans using those tools provided the intelligence layer. Humans were the brains of the cotton gins, printing presses, and automobiles. If the human operator saw or heard a problem, they fixed it and continued working. Today, the intelligence layer can be provided by computers through computer vision, natural language processing, machine learning, etc. Human intelligence is no longer required.

You might say that machines aren’t nearly as smart as humans, so they aren’t as capable as humans. But in reality, they don’t need to be. AI required to operate a machine only needs to have very limited domain knowledge, not human level intelligence (a.k.a. artificial general intelligence). Think about driving a car. You aren’t using 100% of your total intelligence to drive a car. A large portion is thinking about other things, like disagreeing with this article, singing along with the radio, and probably texting. An autonomous driving system only needs to be capable of processing image data, communicating with computers from other devices related to driving, like other vehicles, traffic signals, and maybe even the road itself, making dynamic calculations based on those data inputs and turning those calculations into actions performed by the vehicle. Any incremental intelligence not related to those core functions is irrelevant for an autonomous driving system.

The magnitude of the technological change is also significantly different in this current wave of advancements in AI and robotics. This wave is more akin to the advent of the farm when humans were still gatherers, or the advent of the factory when we were still farmers. Farms not only organized the production of food, but also encouraged the development of community and trade. Factories organized the production of all goods, encouraged the development of cities, and enabled our modern economic system by institutionalizing the trade of labor for wages. Automation will result in equivalent fundamental changes to the philosophy of production by taking it out of the hands of humans. This could result in societal changes of greater freedom of location and a basic income. In a way, the Automation Age may be an enhanced return to the hunter/gatherer period of humanity where basic needs were provided, originally by nature, in the future by machines. Except in the Automation Age, our purpose will be to explore what it means to be human instead of simply survive.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.