What if we laid off 70% of all workers? Wouldn’t we go back to the Stone Age and stay there forever?

That’s the lead question in an article by Kevin Kelly at Wired, Better than Human.

He asks:

Imagine that 7 out of 10 working Americans got fired tomorrow. What would they all do?

Well, we’ve been there, done that.  And thrived.

The economy used to be based on agriculture. Seventy percent of the labor force was on the farm. Over time, the portion of the population farming dropped to about 1%.

That means that about 70% of American jobs went away, replaced by automation.

Yet the economy survived. In fact, grew stronger.

We are going through another transition like that.

The transition this time will not only affect manufacturing jobs, but will reach white-collar and knowledge workers. In fact, the impact on many areas is already here.

Most tax preparation is done by software. I am aware of exactly one of my colleagues who prepares tax returns by hand, but that is only for extremely simple, very short returns. A huge portion of bookkeeping is done by Intuit or Peachtree software. Much pre-trial discovery work is done by software.

The unexpected result is that automation frees up knowledge workers to do higher level work.

The middle third of the article talks about the emerging robots that can work in close proximity to humans.

Then the great part of the article –

Check out the grid of new and existing jobs and the jobs done by humans and machines. It helps sort out what jobs are ‘going’ to machines.

Here are two comments. First, computers do jobs that no human could do:

…the greatest benefits bestowed by robots and automation come from their occupation of jobs we are unable to do. We don’t have the attention span to inspect every square millimeter of every CAT scan looking for cancer cells. We don’t have the millisecond reflexes needed to inflate molten glass into the shape of a bottle. We don’t have an infallible memory to keep track of every pitch in Major League Baseball and calculate the probability of the next pitch in real time.

We aren’t giving “good jobs” to robots. Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do. Without them, these jobs would remain undone.

Second, look at the jobs humans and computers are doing. Look at..

…the new jobs created by automation—including the jobs that we did not know we wanted done. This is the greatest genius of the robot takeover: With the assistance of robots and computerized intelligence, we already can do things we never imagined doing 150 years ago.

Both humans and computers are doing things we never would have dreamed of.

Computers do work humans could not possibly do:

We can remove a tumor in our gut through our navel, make a talking-picture video of our wedding, drive a cart on Mars, print a pattern on fabric that a friend mailed to us through the air.

Humans do work we never would have thought of before:

Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. … Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had.

Merely twenty-five years ago, it would have been inconceivable for anyone to run a CPA firm with as many audits as I’m doing today without having two or three full-time staff.  Yet today it is no big deal to do that in an intentionally one-person firm.

And there you can see the brightness of the future. We humans will be freed up to do creative, new work that we cannot imagine today. That will be more rewarding financially and emotionally.

The author’s conclusion:

We need to let robots take over. They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.

Let the robots take the jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters.

Obviously, I think you should read the full article. It is superb. 

Hat tip to John Bredehoft at tymshftThe robots do not mean to hurt you.

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