Name something you could be happy doing every day. Imagine if your favorite hobby, or most intense intellectual interest, could be your full-time job. And imagine if full time meant spending just a few hours per day on your work.
That is the future with automation. Here’s how it works:
The Economics of Automation: Automation lowers the overall cost of goods and services by increasing efficiency. Robots can often perform tasks quicker than humans, and work around the clock. One estimate says by 2025, robots can decrease the cost of labor in the U.S. by 22%. And that estimate is accounting for only automating 25% of jobs that could be automated.
This reduces the costs to consumers, which allows your money to stimulate other sectors of the economy.
The money a company saves through automation can likewise be invested elsewhere. By definition, this is a more productive use of those funds. Because of automation, the same amount of resources can produce more wealth.
Even if the company gives the shareholders the extra profits, this stimulates the economy wherever the investors choose to spend the money.
And even if they bank the money instead, this lowers the cost of borrowing money, which means more people can afford debt like home loans and business loans.
But what about the workers that got laid off?
Remember that automation increases overall efficiency, so the economy as a whole is left in a better position with more wealth. That said, workers in particular industries will be displaced when their jobs are automated. That is why it is important to have a diverse skill set and be adaptable to change. That is what the failing public school system should be focusing on. They are stuck in a factory mindset.
But jobs that can be automated should be. I think it is a sad prospect for a human to waste hour after hour performing a task that can be performed equally or better by a robot. The human mind is the greatest asset. So workers displaced by machines should look to move up into a more skilled position. They should capitalize on their passions, and make money doing what they love. They should see their layoff as an opportunity to advance.
And remember that the consumers, the company, and the shareholders now all have extra money from the lowered costs of production. This means more jobs will be available in the industries where the extra money goes.
As the cost of living falls because of automation, that means people can get by working fewer hours. A job once taken by an individual might be shared by two or three people. And no one will be worse off for it; they can pay for their old lifestyle with less money!
This is what automation has always done. New inventions always displace workers. Yet the economy continues to grow. The automation creates more wealth, and that wealth is distributed by market demand.
The situation is only different now because of scale. As more and more dreary monotonous jobs are automated, where will new opportunities arise?
You can get a $20 particle board and laminate desk at Walmart. But wouldn’t you rather have an intricately hand-carved oak desk?
Since the cost of living will drop with automation, people won’t have to earn as much to get by. It is hard to make a living now with a skill like wood carving. The time it takes makes the price of the piece too high, or the pay per hour too low.
Automation will mean the woodcarver can decide to do what he loves, make less money, but still get by. Who will buy the desk? The people who now have more disposable income because of automation.
Art is a status symbol of sorts. And this is a great thing for artists of all kinds! Art can only be purchased when there is excess wealth. And automation creates excess wealth. People with more disposable income choose to show this by purchasing art.
How do you set your home apart from the mass-produced decor of Pier 1 Imports? You buy one of a kind art from your local artist. No one else has that exact hand-sculpted ceramic salad bowl. No one else has the painting that is hanging over your fireplace.
Years ago, only the most successful artists could actually make a living from their work. The wealthy Medici patronized Leonardi da Vinci and sponsored his work.
But now countless people have excess wealth, and they can afford to treat themselves to quality art.
This increases their standard of living. The customer gets a beautiful decoration or a symbol of status. The artist gets paid to do what they love.
Shaking hands with the artist as you finalize a transaction can increase enjoyment of the whole process. What is hanging in your living room has meaning.
Meaning is not a tangible good that can be mass produced. And yet things that have meaning to people will take larger chunks of the economy.
Now artists who sell their handcrafted jewelry, knitted clothing, or reclaimed wooden furniture on Etsy can actually make a living. No need to open up a risky retail location. And it offers consumers of all stripes the ability to have a real piece of art, without spending millions at an auction.
Art has been democratized. Anyone can access the market now–buyer or seller. You don’t have to appeal to a dealer or get lucky with an agent.
Ironically, the move towards unique art and decor will take a chunk out of the market for mass-produced items that you can get anywhere.
Sure, you can mass produce art. But the market is already reflecting that people want more meaning and uniqueness to spruce up their surroundings.
Automation means more free time. And humans love entertainment. But that doesn’t mean you have to get a role on Broadway or move to Hollywood to try to make it big. Entertainment is another industry that has been absolutely democratized by new technology.
Youtube stars are case and point. How many people now make a living from creating videos, or posting beautiful pictures on Instagram?
Perhaps it will become harder to make millions as an author. But it is already much easier to make a living as an author. If you love to write, could you imagine yourself waking up every morning and putting pen to paper for a few hours? Earning the same as you earn currently sitting in a cubicle, doing a monotonous task you hate?
Others are able to supplement their income with popular blog posts or videos. For example, the guitar player who teaches lessons on video. If he gets the views, he could earn some money. But the video also helps him promote his business. It is free marketing!
And this blurs the line between entertainment and education. That is a great thing! Educators can become entertainers and vice versa.
What if you could make a living playing in a band for bars and parties? Or making movies for local film festivals? Or competing in video game competitions? The people in these categories are already growing. This trend will only continue with the automation of mundane jobs.
Moving forward expect more professional athletes. They certainly won’t all be making millions. But so what?
These opportunities will only expand as automation increases everyone’s disposable income. The standard of living for even the poorest people has increased exponentially with the technological revolution.
And then there are all the new forms of entertainment that will be invented. Paintball was invented in 1981. Skateboarding has been around since the 1950’s, but only recently boomed to a pro-sport.
So what will the next invention be to spawn a new industry of pros, and a new boom in business?
Artificial Intelligence can do amazing things. But will the creation outshine the master?
In some ways, of course it will. But when humans harness the power of AI to advance their own innovation, they can ride the wave.
How many time have I heard my dad see a product and say, “I invented that! I thought of it 30 years ago!” Sometimes he even created prototypes in his shop. He had the design, math, and engineering skills. But it takes more than that to bring an invention to market.
So how far along could society be if everyone like him had an AI companion that could, say, analyze the market, find the cheapest sourcing materials, and identify the demographics of the target audience?
AI is democratizing innovation. It is putting more power into the hands of people who are brilliant in one area, but less skilled in another–which as far as I can tell is basically everyone.
When I was a kid I said I wanted to be an inventor. (Alright so I also said I wanted to be a million other things too.) But does the job “inventor” really even exist?
There are plenty of people who work for the research and development arms of companies and government agencies. There are certainly scientists and professors who invent things at universities and in laboratories.
But what about the plucky inventor working out of his basement?
AI and robotics make that career choice a reality. Cloud computing and crowdsourcing give individuals the power only large corporations once had. Imagine an AI assistant to write the code for a new app under your guidance.
And tech like 3D printers put the literal means of production into the hands of the proletariat–and they didn’t even need to seize them in a violent uprising!
Many of your customer service needs can already be addressed by robots and artificial intelligence. Perhaps all the staff at your favorite restaurant will someday be robots. Or maybe not…
That depends on the market.
Ever been out to a Japanese restaurant for hibachi? It’s not so much about the food. The fun is the chef cooking in front of you–spraying saki into your mouth, doing tricks with flames, carving crickets out of carrots, and challenging you to catch a piece of shrimp in your mouth. They combine their chef skills with art and entertainment.
Terrible service will not survive. But service as an experience will not only survive but thrive. We may come to expect some sort of entertainment everywhere we go out to eat. We will absolutely demand top notch customer service.
Waiting tables will become an art. Servers won’t just sit idly while you stare at the menu. They will be experts in their field. Connoisseurs of their art, like the tour guides at breweries, or the sales clerk at an expensive wine shop.
They will actually be a resource as opposed to a machine capable of taking your order and bringing back food. That can already be done by robots and touchscreens.
Did you know some people make a living not as dog-walkers, but human-walkers? Yep, some people pay for a walking buddy, who might double as a good listening ear, or someone with helpful advice. In the future, there will be coaches for everything.
Why are there still doormen in the age of automatic doors? It adds class. It provides an extra level of security. It gives you a friendly face to greet you, and a human resource to help you.
The service industry will absolutely be transformed by automation. The jobs the robots don’t take will be filled with professional service providers. They will know how to please you.
These won’t be bottom of the barrel entrance level jobs. These will be careers people train for because they love interacting with and helping people. Many of these jobs could be done by robots and AI, but the market still will want humans to fill these positions.
But yet again, new technology will help the human resources better serve the customers.
An online 20-questions game can guess an object that you are thinking about by asking you 20 yes or no questions. It scary accurate. And it has been around for over a decade! I just randomly thought of tire, and it guessed it after 16 questions.
Imagine taking that concept for a medical device. The doctor’s expertise would help enter the correct symptoms, answer accurately, and make sure the diagnosis was correct. After all, if you feed the most intelligent system crap information, it will spit crap back out.
Even doctors and surgeons could one day be replaced by robots. But don’t you think people will still value a human face at the helm of their healthcare? Doctors will have their time freed by automation so that they can spend real quality time with patients. They will be able to direct the care in a much more personal way.
Of course, doctors aren’t really part of the service industry right now. Can you think of any other service sector jobs that would be better augmented than replaced by AI?
Why do some people die soon after they retire, like they have nothing else to live for? So much of what we do is a distraction. Automation can exacerbate these fears. What role will I have in the world, what will I do, what will be my place, my meaning?
These questions could lead to an entire cultural revolution about what humanity values.
The industrial revolution started on the path to material prosperity. And when technology advances to the point that it can provide all humans with all necessities, for little work, perhaps we will witness the Spiritual Revolution.
We touched on this earlier, the market for meaning.
But don’t see this as cynical. I am not saying people should become snake oil salesmen, start cults, or make up new religions as a new opiate for the masses.
Rather, the search for meaning could truly get the time and resources it deserves. There are a lot of questions about the meaning of life, what happens when you die, does the mind live on, is there another realm of consciousness, and is there a God-like life-force?
Combining science with spirituality could answer some questions. What is the full scope of the pineal gland’s function? Are magic mushrooms unlocking a useful part of the brain, or just making people hallucinate meaning? Why does meditation work, and how much can be achieved using it?
Imagine a post-scarcity world brought by automation. We’re farming the seas, we are using clean energy, we are exploring space. But none of that answers why.
People have more free time than ever, more entertainment than they can consume, and comforts that make past kings look like paupers. When the quality of life gets to that point, you can be obsorbed by it, or you can keep pushing forward to the frontiers of human meaning.
So maybe your future job is in the industry of meaning.
It’s Going to be an Adventure
You can’t hold back progress. You have got to adapt to make the best of all this life has to offer. The pace of technological advance is exponential, and we seem to be entering hyperspeed. You can let that engulf you with fear, or you can surf the crest of the wave, always on the forefront of the latest human advancements.
But none of that means humans will become obsolete, meaningless, or redundant. It is up to the individual to decide how he or she will react to the changes. It is up to you to decide what you will do with this newfound wealth, these vast opportunities.
Some of these changes discussed are relatively short term. What happens at the next level of automation, when humanoid robots really do replace all these things?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is the next step in automation, and it will not be a disaster.
By the time we make it one level further, whole new avenues will have opened. It is impossible to tell at this point in what productive ways humans will then spend their time. But rest assured, humans will always find ways to advance. The human mind is our survival tool. Don’t underestimate it.