I just watched Humans Need Not Apply, the latest video from CGP Grey, the semi-anonymous creator with dozens of explanatory videos to his credit.
This sobering 15-minute piece suggests, in a convincing fashion, that many human jobs will disappear over the coming years, because automation – basically computers and robots – will do them faster, better and cheaper.
From writers (gasp!) to programmers, physicians to researchers, profession after profession will be whittled away by machines that a.) Learn on their own, and b.) Are cheaper to operate than you are.
I’m writing about this today not because I understand the topic in great depth, but instead because I don’t understand the topic in depth.
We have not studied the implications of technological change. Instead, we are blindly going down a road without the faintest understanding of where it leads. It is plausible that we are destroying our own future.
Back in 2001, I authored a book called “Making It Personal: How to Profit from Personalization without Invading Privacy”. My objective was to frame the debate between personalization and privacy, so that we could collectively develop an intelligent balance between the two. Just weeks after the book came out, 9/11 happened and no one cared about privacy anymore. So much for an intelligent balance.
Since that time, entrepreneurial forces have reasserted themselves. In industry after industry, well-meaning entrepreneurs are attacking problems that used to occupy human workers. Humans Need Not Apply specifically mentions how computers are replacing people in the legal discovery space; I know an entrepreneurial team that is implementing such a solution.
Here’s a quick summary of what’s happening: humans can make money replacing humans with computers… but the number of humans who profit from this is a tiny fraction of the number of humans who lose their jobs because of this.
So what’s the answer? I have no idea.
Population is growing to unprecedented levels; last week a UNICEF report predicted that by the end of this century the population of Africa alone will hit four billion people. What are all these people going to do?
Before you attempt to answer, watch Humans Need Not Apply.
In “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that:
There’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary pace.
Here’s what I know for sure: each of us is competing against commoditization. I don’t just mean each company or each industry. I mean each person. You. Me. Our roles are being commoditized, and commoditized roles will eventually be automated, because they must be done as cheaply as possible.
If you want to keep your job and preserve your lifestyle, you must specialize. You must be able to do two things well:
1. Leverage computers in a uniquely human manner.
2. Specialize in tasks that computers have difficulty doing on their own.
If you do things the way people did them 15 years ago, you are toast. If any smart person can do your job with a few months of training, you are toast.
Specialize. Pass the word to anyone you love or even like a little.
Bruce Kasanoff ghostwrites (and edits) articles for entrepreneurs.
Image: a screenshot from Humans Need Not Apply. This piece originally appeared on Forbes.