Book Review: What to Do When Machines Do Everything
by C.J. Chase
Four years ago, an Oxford University study sent shockwaves around the globe with an estimate that 47% of jobs could be lost to automation within the next 20 years. News sites picked it up with cickbait-able hysteria. Would would happen when half the planet lost their jobs? How would people support themselves? The few with jobs would get rich while the rest of us...?
Just this spring, I saw reports that automated harvesters for tree-bearing fruits (apples, peaches, etc.) will be coming to market in the next two years. Driverless cars are already being tested. Amazon is developing the means to use drones for same-day package delivery.
Granted, machines have been making life easier since the invention of the wheel or the fulcrum, whichever one came first, and we've still survived. But the world seems poised on the brink of another earthshaking technological transformation on the scale of the Industrial Revolution of 200 years ago. Yes, I may be old enough that I'm not especially worried about where my career will be in 2035 ('ll just be happy to be here in 2035), but I have children who will be working then. Or will they? When I saw a new book, What to Do When Machines Do Everything (by Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig, and Ben Pring) had released recently, I was curious enough to pick it up.
First, let me say that the book seemed geared more to companies than individuals. And these shifts will probably be great for forward-thinking corporations who take advantage of the opportunities that accompany any change. Second, this is a book about technology, so parts of it can be heavy reading. (Or maybe I've just been out of the Information Technology field too long.)
Computers have been around for a couple of generations now. I remember my father bringing home punch cards back in the day. (My mother even made a Christmas wreath with discarded punch cards.) What makes these "new machines" so different from early computers is that they will have the ability to "learn." Early computers were glorified adding machines. (Am I dating myself with that term? My dad had one of those too.) They performed large arithmetic computations, mostly adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and such. But we are now entering the age of artificial intelligence.
You are probably already using AI, and haven't really thought about it. Take, for instance, a website like Amazon. Sure, put a few Inkwell author books in your cart, and Amazon can tell you with a simply click what the total cost will be. But the company's success is that they do some much more. If you buy (or even just browse) books there for a while, Amazon will begin to make other suggestions for you, based on your prior purchasing. Netflix does something similar, even going so far as to estimate the likelihood you will enjoy a given show.
Like our phones and our TV sets, more and more of the things we use will become "smart." To quote the authors, "If it costs more than $5, and you can't eat it, instrument it!" Someday you will be wearing smart sneakers.
But what about all those coming job losses? Let me summarize the authors' message for you: relax. Yes, there will be job losses, but they will be offset by job gains. The major concern will be a "skills gap" between the jobs that go away and the new ones that are created. For the near future, machines will artificial continue to be very focused, very specialized for specific tasks. You can get a Roomba for your floors, but an all-purpose robotic maid (like the Jetson's Rosie) is still a long ways off.
The authors' suggestion is that we should focus on doing what humans do best, that is "double down on being human." Creativity, friendliness, empathy, imagination, relationships -- these are things machines can't provide.
Enjoy this clip from Star Trek: Next Generation, where an advanced, human-like robot offers a poetry reading of his own original work -- much to the chagrin of the humans listening.