When we read the papers, there is a mindless exuberance around new technologies and how they will change our lives. There have been significant moves in some stocks where a CEO or pundit can attach the words “artificial intelligence” to their business. But these technologies are so new, and the implications so poorly understood that those market gains may not hold. It is a time to be cautious with investments in all technologies, and to better understand their likely deployment.
The resounding cry of “This time is different” has echoed down through the ages and we believe this time is just like the last time, and the time before that. Change has a way of bringing uncertainty and for most that uncertainty breeds fear. We also need to remember as we watch such shows as CNBC, FOX Business, or Bloomberg that everyone who is there has something to sell. These experts know no more than anyone else, they are just talking heads. We and you are just as insightful and intelligent about technology and the future.
At the dawn of the Industrial Age and the panic that ensued as people saw the mechanization of just about everything. The predictions by those most knowledgeable were that it would revolutionize every aspect of our lives and lead to the destruction of work. The revolution was real, the destruction of work was not.
“Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct.”
We saw these fears arise again in the late 1990’s with the introduction of the Internet into every aspect of our lives. The internet has changed everything, but the change has brought about opportunity not destruction, and it has taken over thirty years. Today we see these fears arise again with discussions about emerging technologies. Predictions of no work for some and less work for others are probably true, but not as forecasted.
Most jobs are not going away, and the motivated will still work eighty-hour weeks, outperform the lazy, and get wealthy in the process. Those who start now will get a jump on the rest because education and training will be key. A good thing is that many, if not most, jobs created will not require a college education and that debt burden will be lifted from the young. Where a college degree is needed, the workers may be in such short supply that employers will sponsor students to get specific training.
There are going to be a lot of jobs we cannot now describe. When new technologies appear, new jobs get defined and filled as created and this time will be no different.
The Changing World
What is true is that work as now defined will change in a major way for a few, a little for most, and not at all for a significant portion of our workforce. This is not some overly intelligent prediction; it is merely an informed observation about historical adaptation to change. True change takes a generation, sometimes generations. The habits and ways of the current generation always change incrementally not radically. We saw this with digital payments in the 1970’s and predictions of the “checkless society.” We saw it again with the Dotcom era, the introduction of eCommerce, and predictions of the end of all retail stores. We see it today with the Green Energy Movement, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Currencies, Electric Vehicles, and Robotics.
Our new digital dreams need to be rooted in our known technological reality. Change is hard; adoption of change is always slower than predicted; and the Baby-Boomers will all need to die off to really effect massive change. Let us look at just a few of these predictions and how they differ from reality.
A Green Planet
While we all hope for safer and cleaner energy production, no one is willing to give up their personal technology to get there (except for the hard left who might be willing to sit in a dark and cold place with no electronic device to prove their point). Electricity is the key to moving forward with all technology and only nuclear energy has the promise of delivering energy consistently in the quantities we need to achieve our technical goals. But the green planet lobby has backed us in a corner by protesting nuclear energy, so that transition will now take decades.
“We’re going to need nuclear power. We’re going to need clean coal. We’re going to need wind. We’re going to need solar. And we’re going to need conservation. We need it all.”
The reality is that existing electric production will exist alongside newer technologies for decades. Neither technology nor society can advance only on days when the sun shines and the winds blow. Our electrical grid also lacks the capacity to deliver the needed distributed power to fuel the revolution. Building out this ability will take years and billions if not trillions of dollars we do not have. The world will not end, and we will neither drown, nor burn up, nor asphyxiate because of a slower rollout of green technologies.
Artificial intelligence does offer great opportunity to be transformative and to take many areas of our lives to new and exciting places. But it will not end work, nor will it displace all our jobs. Like earlier transformations, it will shift jobs into new skills, and those who adapt will have great opportunities.
Where new AI software can affect our lives is in the aggregation and analysis of data. We should expect and hope for new medical advances, better and cheaper computing, faster creation of inventions of all sorts, and more meaningful work. But the definition of “more meaningful work” is an individual perspective not a collective movement.
Artificial Intelligence may have its greatest potential in the advancement of other technologies, but which ones and how are still a mystery. There is no way to predict the unpredictable, and that is the nexus where AI and technology sit now. Computer programs that can write other programs will be possible, but even that has a genesis in human thought. There are regulatory, ethical, security, and nation/state issues to overcome before AI becomes the true transformative technology predicted.
Digital currencies are at the heart of change all governments want because it becomes the ultimate taxing and funding mechanism. Without digital currencies there is a privacy dividing line between currency and goods or services. Consumers in America and Europe will push back on this loss of privacy and government intrusion into our lives, and this will slow down the deployment.
The most dangerous advocates for this loss of privacy are Central Banks, the Bank for International Settlements, and Socialist. This is one area where the lack of technical understanding in Congress may be a blessing. But this lack of understanding may make the EU version of control look attractive to some and these developments are worth a lot of vigilance on the part of voters.
Elon Musk and his peers have made electric vehicles the Holy Grail of climate change and saving us from ourselves. Musk is a genius, but a part of that genius is in marketing and capitalism.
In addition to the issues with the electric grid mentioned above, the real obstacle to achieving adoption of EV’s is cost. Car manufacturers have done a great job of making gas and diesel vehicles cost effective, efficient, and durable. These developments are needed but slow the adoption of EV’s. It is not unusual today for a new vehicle to last ten years or more. With the cost of EV’s much higher than gas/diesel there is little to no incentive to change.
This is a movement that must win over the hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers, and it seems unlikely that this change will be made quickly. Forbes estimates that there are more than 278 million cars and trucks in America. Consumers will need to be willing to spend over $14 trillion to go total electric. Americans love their cars and trucks, and the idea of sharing vehicles is a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.
Robotics may be the most feared development of all we see on the horizon. We know from current manufacturing how much robotics can aid manufacturing production. Most developed nations have declining populations and robotics is the way to make up for this shortfall in labor. To date repetitive and dangerous jobs have moved toward robotics and a few of the other forecasted changes may be on the horizon.
For the military, robotics is the holy grail with declining populations, nearly unlimited budgets, and advances in military sciences can be the catalyst for other applications. Much like the 1960’s when NASA created new products for general consumption, the military may lead the way with much of the robotics change.
In the medical field robotics has and is supplying great advances in surgeries, sanitation, transportation, and patient management. But the wholesale replacement of humans with robots is unlikely until there is a much deeper marriage of AI, robotics, and skills of real doctors. This will take decades and the marriage of medical professionals with all new technologies is much more probable.
For now, the human brain is still king and will be for the foreseeable future. Our children’s grandchildren may see something very different but for now it looks like incremental change is still all we can adapt to in our daily lives.
If we were younger and looking to our future for sure we would focus on math, science, programming, data security, and other technical fields. But there are a host of other opportunities out there that are less technical. Electricians, contractors, wiring specialists, network analysts and installers, security specialists, robotic maintenance and repairs, and materials reclamation are just a few.
Our new reality is no different than other moments in history where we have stood and investigated the unknown with some trepidation. There is some uncertainty about the effects and changes we will see with Artificial Intelligence. But these uncertainties are just that and nothing more.
Resources Used in This Article
6 Applications for Robotics in Medicine, by Mark Crawford, asme.org, September 14, 2016.
Car Ownership Statistics 2023, Forbes Advisor.com, by Ashlee Tilford, May 8, 2023.
King Ludd is Still Dead, by Kenneth Rogoff, project-syndicate.org, October 1, 2012.
Warren Buffett baffles many on green energy — what about heir apparent Greg Abel?, by Rachel Koning Beals, MarketWatch.com, May 4, 2021.
What the Industrial Revolution really tells us about the future of automation and work, by Joel Abrams, theconversation.com, September 1, 2017.