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Robots and AI are inevitable (for business)

Wired featured an article today on the impact of robotics and AI on our economy. The article paints a pretty dismal picture of where our economy is heading, starting in the 1980s with the rise of computers up until the current day, where we see more robotics, AI, and automation.

Here are some recent points that drive this home:

All together, U.S. factories are actually producing more products today than they did in the post-World War II era, according to the Federal Reserve’s reading on manufacturing output. Output at U.S. factories is up 150% in last 40 years. But U.S. manufacturing jobs have plunged by more than 30% in that same period. And automation is a big reason why.

A key quote from the Wired article that sums this up (along with the farce that is 45’s job promise):

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.

And it just isn’t blue-collar/factory jobs:

Indeed, the rise of driverless cars and trucks is just a start. New AI techniques are poised to reinvent everything from manufacturing to healthcare to Wall Street. In other words, it’s not just blue-collar jobs that AI endangers.

The CNN article I linked to above, cited a report that tries to estimate the scope:

A recent study by McKinsey & Co. said that 45% of the tasks that U.S. workers are currently paid to perform can be automated by existing technology. That represents about $2 trillion in annual wages.

So, the “jobs” question isn’t “how do we bring back these jobs from another era?” — we should be focused on how we will adapt to this new economy. Over the last 30 years, the economy has changed faster than our government, education system, and public can adapt, so how will be able to handle this?

I can think of a few things that would help:

  • A focus on creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking in K-12 education (like it or not, the common core was an attempt at this…)
  • Free/cheaper higher education
  • Massive focus on re-training and adult education programs
  • Immigration to help drive innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Publicly funded healthcare or at least a system that is not tied to the workplace (imagine how many new businesses we’d see if people weren’t stuck in a job simply for health insurance)
  • Massive shifts in things like energy production that would drive new jobs

We need real leadership on this subject — not short-term fixes, proposals, or public relations “wins”, like we’ve seen from 45 so far… but who will push for the massive change needed, when the businesses employing these technologies will see the short-term benefits (profits) they crave in our Wall Street economy?

We are quickly reaching the tipping point that will cause this massive shift (and job loss) and given how we handled the computer age, I’d wager we won’t be ready for this either.