Accepted wisdom among economists and Silicon Valley types tells us that robotics and automation are about to vacuum up jobs in record numbers. While innovation used to create more jobs than it displaced, that will no longer be the case, experts say. From circuit board manufacture to software programming, the machines will be making themselves. From fast-food delivery to dental work, people will be standing by as machines serve our needs. Why will we need human workers?
This train of thought is following old tracks. We need to abandon it and investigate new territory in our quadcopter, with two questions in mind: 1) Is there work that remains undone? 2) Can we dream larger quests that will let us deploy the amazing powers now under our control?
Let’s start by studying the landscape of work. We tend to think of work and jobs as equivalent, but in fact, jobs only cover the work someone with resources is willing to pay for. In fact, enormous amounts of desirable work lies abandoned: infrastructure repair, impoverished child nourishment and nurturing, re-training, research in alternative energy and climate change-mitigation, systems for internalizing externalities, transforming trash into treasures, reducing pollution and waste, just to name a few. Suppose we were to deploy the Internet of Things and Big Data analytics to internalize corporate social responsibility into the cost of goods? This project alone would change the entire world’s economy and turn un-done work into paying jobs instead of pretending that profits are more important than people
Still, we cannot dispute that innovation is accelerating rapidly. In the past, computers pulled the plug on most typist pools, but word processing, graphic design and database management quickly redirected enterprising workers willing to retrain. Vast opportunities opened up for programmers. Now, however, the pace of change has ramped exponentially. Moving from typewriters to keyboards with spellcheck is a transition. Converting from driving a taxi to managing a fleet of self-driving delivery bots is a leap that requires vision, chutzpah and capital investment. Growing from a medical practice manager to a developer of hospitality facilities that provide automated medical care involves a change in self-reference: are we competing with robots for jobs, or are we applying their unmatchable speed and precision to do something amazing, to better our world and our lives?
The problem with accelerating productivity from technology is not that it competes with people, but that people dream too small.
The problem with accelerating productivity from technology is not that it competes with people, but that people dream too small. They follow old tracks instead of using the power of new technologies to launch vast enterprises, to clean up cities and oceans, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, to care for every child as we would our own, to expand into Space and to fulfill the potential of humankind.
What we need are leaders who dream big, who recognize the vast power that is building under human control and who apply it to the vast problems that face us. It is time to abandon old trains of thought. It is time to explore and envision new possibilities.