Plug the terms “technology,” “jobs” and “human” into Google, Amazon.com, or any conversation these days, and you can become a pessimist or an optimist.
Google has 233 million hits on “technology” and “humans” alone, while Amazon.com lists about 70,000 books.
Put in “technology” and “jobs,” and nearly 16,000 books pop up in Amazon.com.
Bottom line: I think humans using parts of their brains that machines cannot, could save the day.
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But it’s a mixed blessing.
In “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” Martin Ford presents some gut-punching statistics right up front. He mentions that in January 2010, The Washington Post reported that no new jobs were created in the U.S. during the first decade of the 21st century. Further, he claims that our economy needs to generate 1 million jobs per year just to employ the growing workforce.
Rather than blaming anyone or any policy, Ford argues that the relationship between workers and machines has changed in fundamental new ways. It’s not that technology is taking over routine or low-skilled jobs. Instead, technology is taking over “predictable” jobs. If you repeat certain activities or tasks, even if you have a lot of education — think radiologists, pharmacists, some journalists — you’re “predictable.” What machines and technology cannot do is work that is creative or requires some “blue-sky” thinking. (He calls higher education to task in a big way, but that’s another story. We professors may soon face challenges to parts of our jobs as well.)
A second book makes a similar point in a different way. Geoff Colvin’s “Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will” makes it clear that, while artificial intelligence and machines are making inroads on work, humans do have advantages. I especially liked a chapter about how teams of humans can generate a “collective intelligence” far greater than a single person (or any machine) can achieve.
Specifically, Colvin used an example from the Ryder Cup tournament. (For nongolfers like me: the Ryder Cup is a biennial competition between the 12 best European and the 12 best American players, with the latter usually losing.) In 2008, Tiger Woods was injured, so the captain couldn’t even count on having “the best” and thus needed a new approach. He formed three pods of four players who were similar in temperament, could “read” each other well, and knew when and how to encourage their “podmates.” The U.S. won the Ryder Cup — then lost it in succeeding years with the old approach.
Score one for humans.
If we do work that demands creativity, good team interaction and vision, we just might have a chance for the next few decades.