Robots Are Coming for Your Job Sooner Than You Think

Will you be prepared?

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Sep 27 2017, 9:00pm

Back in March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sat down with Axios to talk about his role in the newly formed Trump administration. Mnuchin said a lot of outlandish things during the course of this interview, from claiming the president had "perfect genes" to proposing we "look at putting Trump on the $1,000 bill." Most of this was the standard 2017 circus nonsense we've come to expect from those in the president's inner circle. But one exchange in particular should give American workers pause.

Midway through the conversation, interviewer Mike Allen asked Mnuchin about the threat of mass job loss from automation and artificial intelligence. A previous guest, Mark Cuban, was very focused on how it might affect the workforce. "What's your take on that?" Allen asked.

Mnuchin smirked. "I think we're, like, so far away from that," he said. "It's not even on my radar screen."

"How far away?" asked Allen. "Seven more years?"

"Seven more years?" Mnuchin laughed. "I think it's 50 to 100 more years!"

Curious, considering the conversation happened just a few short months after Uber began testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, and a year after the ride-sharing company began a similar test in Arizona. It also happened after Amazon opened its first prototype grocery store in Seattle, which requires zero human interaction, and may well be a possible indicator of what could come to pass at Whole Foods, which the online giant recently acquired. The number of retail jobs lost in the past year alone (6,100) is more than the total number of people employed by the coal industry, a darling of the current administration.

Contrary to Mnuchin's beliefs, automation and AI-related job loss isn't 50 or 100 years in the future. It's already happening. And his comments suggest we aren't prepared.

"Nobody believes this is coming soon, and nobody believes this is going to happen to their job," said Michael Solomon, co-founder and managing partner of 10x Management, a talent agency for high-performing software engineers, coders, and designers. "People assume the only positions that will be affected by automation are jobs like factory work, agriculture, driving, and other blue-collar jobs. But that's just automation—they ignore the artificial intelligence side, which is what they should be worried about."

Solomon is worried, and the numbers back him up. He spends much of his spare time trying to get the word out about what he sees as an imminent job loss apocalypse, recently launching the Day After Labor, a website dedicated to bringing "the topic of impending net job loss due to advances in technology to the forefront of social and policy discussions."

According to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, 38 percent of American jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete within the next 15 years, and it's not just blue-collar work that's going away.

"AI is going to eliminate a massive amount of white collar jobs," Solomon said. "Loan officers are going to be made entirely obsolete by this technology, because a machine is much better at calculating risk than a human is. When you really start to look into these things, you start to see this is going to impact everyone. This is going to end the careers of stock brokers and lawyers and many white-collar professionals."

AI is already being tested and perfected throughout industries many would imagine are immune. With each passing day, bots are getting better at writing the news, diagnosing obscure illnesses, scanning legal briefs, and even composing full orchestral symphonies.

Solomon isn't the only one who sees the potential for mass joblessness on the horizon. Just before the end of his term, President Obama's top economic and scientific advisers released Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy, which took a deep dive into what emerging technologies might mean for the future of labor. That report focuses heavily on automated vehicles (called AVs), and estimates "2.2 to 3.1 million existing part- and full-time US jobs may be threatened or substantially altered by AV technology" within the next two decades.

Both the report and PwC study note that many of today's jobs are indeed replaceable, but also emphasize that these new advancements could very well signal a shift in the market toward new, currently unimaginable positions. For this reason, Jon Gruber, a professor of economics at MIT, doesn't feel the need to panic just yet.

"If you think about a new technology, it does two things: It substitutes for existing labor, but it also compliments the creation of new jobs—making the AI, and using the AI," he said. Jobs won't be lost, so much as replaced, he said, acknowledging that some of these shifts would require the use of new technology, and that better access to education and training than is currently available in some blue-collar communities would be required as a result.

Solomon, on the other hand, is not sure new jobs will emerge from the ashes of AI. As such, he's focused on the worst case scenario, which has led the Day After Labor project to seek an answer to two core questions: First, how will people stay out of poverty when there are no longer jobs for everyone. Second, how will people spend their time, energy, and talent in a post-employment society?

The first question is the most pressing. If we don't have a solution in place to prevent widespread poverty, he worries the very fabric of our society may be ripped to shreds, something Gruber notes is already happening in communities with high rates of unemployment. "You look at where joblessness is highest," Gruber said. "It's also where drug abuse and crime is the highest."

The most commonly floated remedy to mass job loss is also one of its most controversial. And in today's divisive political climate, it's virtually a loaded gun: universal basic income. The idea that every person—regardless of who they are, whether they're employed, or how much they make—should receive a periodic payment to spend on whatever they choose. Some may use it for basic necessities like food and rent; others may put it toward their retirement or blow it all on a night on the town. Unlike welfare, disability, or unemployment benefits, it's unconditional, making it a virtually untouchable political topic.

"Pretty much every economic expert who's looked into this issue says it's the best solution to automation," Solomon said.

Tests of universal basic income models are already underway in Finland, and seed-funding startup Y Combinator is set to roll out a large-scale, five-year UBI test across two US states within the next few months. Solomon fears any contemporary discussion of UBI will inevitably descend into political chaos, but believes it's a topic that will become much more mainstream in the next couple years—particularly as this automated future begins to unfold—and will be a "significant topic" in the next presidential election.

This reality may be a tough one to swallow, but there is some good news, some sugar to help the medicine Solomon is dishing out go down. After all, if we know what's coming, we can prepare for it. The trick is learning skills in the markets that'll emerge as enhancements to automation and AI.

"I certainly think AI, machine learning, data science, and robotics are all gonna be very in-demand jobs in the future," Solomon said. "The other things that aren't really automatable are jobs like elder care and nursing. Of course there will be automations that make those jobs easier and more efficient and perhaps will cut down on the number of those positions available, but these industries aren't going away by any stretch."

Beyond that, Solomon says future-focused young professionals should look for jobs that are imbued with humanity, and are fueled by our capacity for empathy, emotion, and creativity—therapy, coaching, social services. "Those kinds of jobs I think are relatively safe from AI and automation, but we need to get comfortable with the idea that there won't be jobs for everyone," Solomon said. "Will you be OK if you don't have one?"

Follow Caroline Thompson on Twitter.

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