Researchers at the University of Oxford wrote a paper that came to this startling conclusion: artificial intelligence (AI) and robots can replace half of the jobs known to us today. It’s not to say that there will be a net loss of 2 billion jobs, but they don’t know what the future industries and related jobs will be. For instance, who in the 90’s would have known that a social media company like Facebook would be the $200 billion juggernaut that it is today?
Is it really a stretch to believe that so many jobs can be impacted? At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, IBM’s Watson is providing cancer treatment diagnostics, which were formerly performed by oncologists. Computerization has already infiltrated the legal and financial sectors. Symantec’s eDiscovery Clearwell system can sort and analyze over half a million documents in less than two days for legal research. And, algorithms have been designed by financial firms to perform thousands of trades (called high frequency trading) in a matter of minutes, leading to the flash crash in 2010.
Already, robots have been embraced by the industrial sector. Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of electronics that employs over a million workers, has invested heavily in robotic manufacturing. Foxconn intends to replace 500,000 workers with robots to increase productivity and reduce labor costs. And their “Foxbots” are getting faster and smarter.
Gone are the days of industrial robots serving a single purpose. In 2012, Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter, a freestanding and mobile robot that can be taught physical tasks. Any regular worker can show Baxter what to do, and it only takes a couple of minutes. This is revolutionary since a specialist must program most other robots. Baxter’s introductory price tag is a mere $22,000.
Even retail giants are dabbling in robotics. Orchard Supply Hardware, a subsidiary of Lowe’s, opened a pilot store in San Jose, CA to test retail robots. A customer can interact with the robots by using their 3D scanners to identify a part, or use them to research products and then be led to the product’s location within the store. The robots are also bilingual, with more languages to be uploaded in the future. It took Lowe’s only 9 months to develop the robots and setup the test location.
The idea that half of today’s jobs may vanish has changed my view of my children’s future. In twenty years, my children will begin their careers. How will they compete against AI? How will they compete against a much older and experienced workforce vying for even fewer positions? Which industries will have the biggest job losses or growth?
It only takes a look at Spain’s recent economic crisis to get a glimpse of what the future could be. They had an overall unemployment rate of 25% in 2012, and the prospect for Spain’s youth was even worse at 55%. Many Spanish youth still live with parents or receive some type of monetary assistance from them.
When I asked the speakers at Singularity University what we should teach our children to prepare for the future, their response was to emphasize problem solving, experimentation, and creativity. If your children are in college, they also recommended that they study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. However, the greatest innovation is happening at the intersection of two, three, or even four disciplines and not necessarily in the STEM fields. So, a single or double major isn’t enough now? Students now need a triple or quadruple major? Geez, talk about putting pressure on our kids.
It’s not only a problem for our children. Think about the displacement of workers in their prime. How do experienced workers stay relevant to their industry or to the job force in general? It comes back to education and curiosity. We cannot assume that education stops once we leave school. Education is a continual lifelong process. We must constantly acquire new skills, adopt new technology, and see what innovations are happening across industries.
Is the future so bleak? I don’t think so. I believe new industries will pop up and more economic wealth discovered as the impoverished bottom billion become activated consumers and producers. Who knows, we may even decide to colonize other planets like Mars or start mining operations on asteroids.
Whatever the future holds, the question persists, how do we prepare our kids for the future? When I asked one of my mentors, Steve Evans, about preparing our children for the future, he provided this eloquent response:
“First, ensure they have a strong foundation of faith, family, and friends…the core of what you need to depend upon when things go off track and seem insurmountable. Second, encourage a spirit of wonderment, exploration, and discovery. Finally, make sure that with all the technology that’s put in front of them every day, that they never lose sight of the importance of building people-to-people relationships and communications skills!”
I think educating and fostering a sense of curiosity in our children will help, but perhaps we are focused on the wrong things. Eventually, machines will master many of the disciplines and could essentially beat us at our own game. Along with fostering curiosity, I think we should encourage our children to learn how to build meaningful relationships and be better humans.
Worried about the future? Read my next post where the future might be better than you think, “Become a Billionaire by Helping a Billion People.”