June 02, 2008

Better Robots and AI are not the only ways your job could disappear in the future

by Christina Wong

When people talk about the Technological Singularity and advanced robots and artificial (general) intelligence, it seems a large part of the denial of that future is the idea that "a machine cannot do what I do" or "a machine cannot replace my job".

It does not necessarily take more "intelligence".

People have known about vending machines for decades.

But was it smarter computers and robots that enabled fully automated convenience stores in the US and Japan ?
The picture is not the japanese version but a Kroger automated convenience store in the USA.

There are more than 5.5 million vending machines operating in Japan--that's one for every 20 people--and last year they raked in a total of $56 billion in sales, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association (JVMA). You deposit your coins and make your choice: dried squid or hair tonic, batteries or green tea, boxers or beer. Sanyo's Auto Shop Vendor isn't just bigger than the Coke-and-coffee machines of the past; advanced mechanical engineering allows it to handle what was until recently an unthinkable variety of necessities and impulse purchases. "This is four vending machines in one," exults Sanyo deputy general manager Misao Awane. "It holds 200 different products, at three different temperatures."

The question is not can a machine do exactly what I do the way I do it ?
The question: Is there a successful business model where what you do is no longer necessary ? The good news is that people will be freed up to be involved in new businesses that grow the economy.

There have been more mundane job displacement:
There is self checkout at Walmart, Home Depot and other stores
Self service gas stations
Ecommerce where shopping and business transactions are mostly removed from bricks and mortar
Wikipedia killing encyclopedia companies.
Collaboration systems eliminating repeating the same research work many times over.
Open source software eliminating jobs where the same work is repeated at many companies.

Automated teller machines or websites like Paypal can reduce the people involved in financial businesses. So can new investment products like Exchange Traded Funds

Going down the list of jobs and looking at how many people have different jobs which are the jobs that are safe from displacement ? Even if a class of jobs is not completely eliminated could demand be severely reduced ?

23.3 million jobs in the USA for office administration and support. (New business systems that require fewer people. Web 2.0 companies only need a handful of people or one person to do what took hundreds only a few years ago).
14.3 million jobs in the USA for sales and related work. (Automation and new sales processes)
11.3 million jobs in food preparation and serving. (Improved frozen meals)
10.1 million jobs in production. (Automation and process re-engineering)
9.6 million jobs in transportation and material moving. (more local production : high rise farming, rapid prototyping and manufacturing systems)
8.3 million jobs in education, training and library. (online learning, MIT recordings of the best professors.)
6.9 million healthcare practitioners and technical. (Biomarker tracking with cheap devices to catch and treat diseases early or in the developing stages. Keep people healthier and avoiding the need for more costly and people intensive intervention).
6.7 million jobs in construction and extraction (pre-fab buildings and panels).
6.0 million Management. Re-engineering to flatten organizations and take out layers of management. Web 2.0'ing a business. Reinvent it where a lot fewer people are needed.
5.4 million Installation, Maintenance, and Repair. Redesign things where the quality is better and it does not break or does not need service or is simple to install.

It is good to increase productivity because it is the process by which an economy becomes more wealthy.

Smart stores: re-inventing stores around RFID


The Irrefutable Fool said...

Again I'll probably get targeted as a communist, but if all the production gains do is serve to disenfranchise more people from the economy, or the wealth is distributed to a sole few, is it really worth it?
I think if the disparity continues like it does today, you'll see mass social upheaval, possibly the actual re-emergence of socialist/communist parties. The real issue is the social contract.

bw said...

Automation and displacement should not disenfranchise people from the economy. Just like in 1800s and the early 1900s when what is the developed world now went from 80% people working as farmers to 80% not working as farmers and now less than 5% working as farmers. It enabled people to have all of the jobs and economy that exists today. Companies that kept everyone as farmers are poor.