Updated: Jul 18, 2020
When algorithms broadly outperform humans in the things humans do for work, art and small business will be the last sanctuary for humanity.
Before the Age of Algorithms
In the post World War II American economic boom, the deal was simple; go to school, get an education, find a good job, work that job for a few decades while raising a family, get the kids through college. Then, you retire with a pension that would support you in to your glorious, post-work golden years.
This worked for some time. After the war, America took its place as the top global economic powerhouse. The middle class was vibrant and growing. Americans took to the roads to see the country after interstate highways connected the coasts. People were raising families, buying homes, cars, and an endless supply of gadgets and things as consumerism took hold. Mom-&-pop shops and family-owned restaurants were in their heydays and Main Street America was bustling.
This deal is the American Dream.
As time goes on and the economy grows, industry and corporations prosper, and for the most part, the American middle-class share in that prosperity - until the 1970s.
The 70s marks a clear breaking point where corporations begin to grow larger, more productive, and more profitable, yet those gains stop being reflected in workers’ wages and pensions start to become a thing of the past.
In the decades that followed more and more market share is annexed by these growing corporations. They become more efficient and the offshoring of jobs becomes more fiscally feasible. Car factories begin to mechanize. Both parents now need to work to support a family and pay off their growing debts. Small businesses find it more and more difficult to compete with big-box retail giants and supermarkets causing the small, unique, craft offerings of the old economy to give way to the mass-produced and the average. The shuttering of Main Street America and the decline of small, post-industrial towns across the country mark the end of an era. For many in the middle class and lower-income stations, the American Dream turns into an American disillusionment.
The rise of the computer and internet follow, and tech titans signal that a far greater disruption has arrived - the age of algorithms.
The Age of Algorithms & the Creation of the “Useless Class”
Some call it the fourth industrial revolution. The age of the Human-supported assembly line that began with Ford is long gone. This industrial revolution won’t be marked by a monstrous industrial machine supported by a robust middle-class, trained and molded by a public school system. This industrial revolution will be marked by machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence making it possible for the giants of industry and tech to be bigger and more profitable, while relentlessly squeezing out the need for human labor. Today, due to automation, a multi-million dollar company doing business all over the world can employ just a small fraction of the people it would have needed decades ago.
The deal we spoke of at the outset has broken down at almost every level because that deal was constructed within the rules of an obsolete economic system. The game has changed. In this new economy, even the education system at the college and university level can’t keep up with the pace of change. Students today graduate saddled with debt and have fewer opportunities to be employed in their field of study. And when they do get hired, in many cases, it's for a job that will become obsolete less than ten years after the graduation caps are hurled into the sky.
And these trends are only accelerating.
In 2013, Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a paper entitled “The Future of Employment”. The researchers spelled out the likelihood of specific professions being automated by machines over the next 20 years. Their overall estimation - a staggering 47% of US jobs are at high risk of disappearing from the economy. The report stipulates that by 2033 those in the following lines of work could lose their jobs to automation algorithms:
Telemarketers & Insurance Underwriters — 99% probability
Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks — 98% probability
Loan Officers — 98%
Cashiers — 97%
Chefs — 96%
Waiters — 94%
Paralegals — 94%
Retail Salesperson — 92%
Stonemasons — 89%
Bakers — 89%
Bus drivers — 89%
Construction Workers — 88%
Food Prep Workers — 87%
Veterinary assistants — 86%
Real Estate Sales Agent — 86%
Security guards — 84%
Sailors — 83%
Fast Food Cooks — 81%
Bartenders — 77%
Carpenters — 72%
Pharmacy Aides — 72%
Click here to see the full list.
This isn’t the first time concerns over mass worker displacement arise when seeing the furious pace of technological advancement. It’s been a concern raised after all major revolutions of industry. The common refrain from those who don’t believe that new technologies will result in mass unemployment has been that as old jobs are shed, new jobs will be created. Although this has been true thus far, it’s foolish to imagine this will hold true today. Why? It’s not that new jobs won’t arise - they will - but for those jobs to benefit most people, they will have to be jobs that algorithms can’t also do better. And as you can see from the list above, eventually there will be very little that an algorithm can’t do better.
In other words, mass unemployment isn’t really the issue this time around, it’s mass unemployability.
The Useless Class
The useless class is a term used by Yuval Noah Harari in the article, The Rise of the Useless Class, to describe the result of widely adopting advanced algorithms to automate much of the repetitive tasks that Humans do for work - that result being the rise of a massive swath of unemployable people.
To illustrate, look at call center jobs. Site Selection Group estimates the total call center workforce in the U.S. is approximately three million workers. The technology to replace a vast percentage of these workers already exists.
As you can see in the video above, AI is getting really good at natural language conversation, and within ten years it will be difficult to know whether you are speaking to a human or a machine. Tracking the progress being made in this field, it’s not hard to imagine fully automated call centers being supported only by a handful of people working from home. Seeing three million call center workers whittled down to 10 or 20 thousand doesn't seem far off the mark. That’s just one sector of the economy. This reduction in the labor force will be repeated across all sectors of the economy in the next decade.
*See update below about Googles AI Phone assistant & what major company has already started using it.
Although there’s much to be debated here, let’s just accept for a moment that the march of progress in technology will continue precisely as we see it, where increasingly, redundant Human labor becomes easily replaceable.
Let’s accept for a moment that rapidly advancing algorithms, the force driving us to confront the unemployability problem, can’t be stopped with regulation or lobbying. Why? For one, it’s already happening - the genie is out of the bottle. For two, it’s about national security. A country that tries to stop the disruption of algorithms and artificial intelligence will be left behind by other countries, like China, that is today embracing the mechanizing and automating of their economies, artificial intelligence & big data. The same effect would be seen if we had legislated against the automobile or the internet. Foreign economic competition will force us to play at the automation table.
If we then accept for a moment that mass unemployability will be a reality by 2035, as some experts have suggested, what comes next?
In a world where repetitive work, which according to experts accounts for over 95% of jobs held by Humans, is done by machines, what will people - who have come to believe that their worth is tied to how effective they are as an economic input - do?
Where would we find meaning, purpose, and dignity without work - or, to be more precise - without traditional employment?
If all current trends hold, people will have no choice but to start to re-imagine their place in society. And though it may seem counter-intuitive, the answers to these questions will represent a giant societal leap forward.
As the world pushes forward into the age of algorithms with a declining need for human labor, the stage is set for what comes next - a return to what brings us closer to being human; a great resurgence in the arts, entrepreneurship, and creativity; a global renaissance.
There will now be a return to Main Street; a return to the family farm; a return to the art galleries and street festivals; a return of craft and regional flair, a return to entrepreneurship
Art and Entrepreneurship: The Last Human Sanctuary
When considering these challenges it’s not hard to see a dystopian alternate reality unfurling, but oftentimes, this is what progress looks like. It’s disruptive and destructive, even. Progress demands that we adjust our preconceptions and adapt to new realities.
And the new reality is this; millions of jobs will go away. What will be left over for most of us to do is creative work in the arts, jobs with smaller local businesses where it doesn't make sense to automate, and entrepreneurship. Policies like Universal Basic Income will continue to gain favor with the public as a New Deal, a way to make people whole under these new economic realities and give them the resources necessary to forge their own paths forward.
Humans will, for the most part, leave the factory floors, they will walk away from the call centers and warehouses, truckers will exit the highways and freeways.
After decades of economic vitality going to a few at the top, there will now be a return to Main Street America; a return to the family farm; a return to the art galleries and street festivals; a return of craft and regional flair, a return to entrepreneurship; we’ll revitalize our towns with renewed local commerce and create millions of jobs in our own communities; we’ll return the arts and music and imagination.
In the Harvard Business Review article, "The Future of Human Work Is Imagination, Creativity, and Strategy", Joseph Pistrui writes that ”machines are tactical; humans are strategic”. Citing a study by Mckinsey, the article states that “work that requires a high degree of imagination, creative analysis, and strategic thinking is harder to automate”.
If working at a food plant, packing mass-produced cupcakes on a production line is “tactical”, better suited for a machine, then opening a local cupcake bakery and cafe would be largely “strategic”, better suited human hands as entrepreneurs require a wide set of skills that involve creativity, imagination, and flexibility.
We were never meant to be cogs in a machine, performing redundant tasks ten hours a day as our good years pass us by.
Mass unemployability is coming, but if we harvest the gains that progress will usher in, invest in people with policies like Universal Basic Income, we will increase freedom of choice while ensuring economic security. If this is accomplished, what comes after that could be a golden age of Humanism. This would be a time when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are truly fundamental rights. This could be a time when our intrinsic value and survival aren't tied to our wages, but to what we create and who we are.
As we learn how to be neighbors again and connect with one another over our common endeavors, we’ll also become more empathetic and tolerant of our differences. This is not utopian, it’s human. And embracing this economic and societal evolution, we’ll fulfill what was perhaps the real progressive vision the founding fathers’ had for this country:
“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
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After a few short weeks after posting this piece, here are two new headlines that are relevant in showing that things are progressing very quickly in the direction highlighted in his article.
by Mathew Humphries for PCMAG | Image: Michael Brochstein/ Sope Images / lightrocket via Getty images