Another view of the radical change that will hit us down the road

The radical rate of change around us is compounded by the power of artificial intelligence.  The Economist magazine had an article last week on point: Difference Engine: Luddite Legacy.

For a long time, like since the start of the industrial revolution, mechanical tools have displaced muscle power.  In recent decades and especially quite recently, we have seen lots of manufacturing move from higher-wage countries to lower-wage countries.

The disruption is spreading.  (Hey, that’s the point of this and many other blogs.)  The Economist article points towards the spread to knowledge workers.

Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it.

If a pattern-recognizing software can diagnose an x-ray as well as radiologists but at 1% of the cost, then there will be lots of $300k radiologists out of work.  The math used in the article suggests they may be replaced by renting software for $3k a year.

I’ve previously mentioned articles discussing that software is replacing some of the grunt work of discovery in the legal firms.

That disruption will continue and spread.  Knowledge workers are now at risk of following the path agriculture workers were on 100 years ago:

In many ways, the white-collar employees who man the cubicles of business today share the plight of agricultural workers a century ago. In 1900, nearly half of the adult population worked on the land. Thanks to tractors, combine harvesters, crop-picking machines and other forms of mechanisation, agriculture now accounts for little more than 2% of the working population.

Portion of the population working on farms dropped from around 50% to about 2% today. So, do we have 48% unemployment?  Wait a second while I check.

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Still checking.

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I’m back.  Nope.  Unemployment rate is 9.0%.   Even the underemployed rate is at 16.2% (that’s the U-6 measure).  Those numbers are really high, but that is due to us being in a jobless recovery.  But notice the numbers are not anywhere near 48%.

So where did all those workers go?  You know, the half of the workforce that lost their jobs?

They went into jobs that did not exist in 1900.  Massive amounts of people today are doing  jobs that did not exist 100 years ago.

Likewise today.  Huge numbers of people will get replaced by a smarter, faster, cheaper computer algorithms.  They will get different jobs.

There are a number of serious challenges:

  • What will those jobs look like?
  • How do all of us that have to make a shift get ready for those unknown jobs?
  • How do we thrive in the new economy?
  • How do we help people who are oblivious to everything mentioned in this post and The Economist article know that massive change is afoot?

I have no clue how to answer those questions.  Neither does anyone else.

However, the very first step in answering those questions is to ask.

(hat tip: Via Meadia)

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