The smart machines are coming and it's not science fiction.
If you think you've lived through a bad economy, you haven't seen anything yet. On the horizon is a "technology tsunami" poised to destroy tens of millions of jobs due to automation. The best research to date from researchers at Oxford University predicts that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States have a high probability of being taken over by technology in the next five to 15 years. Based on that research along with independent research, the chief economist of the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that the United States could lose upwards of 80 million jobs during that time frame.
We can and must learn how to excel at doing the skills that technology can't do. We must improve our critical and innovative thinking, problem solving skills, and emotional intelligence (EI). We must become more creative, master our ego and emotions, and basically “learn how to learn.” It surprises most people to hear that humility and EI—not high IQ, advanced degrees, great knowledge, or any other traditional predictor of success—will be the keys to survival.
If you're skeptical about the coming tsunami, just open your eyes. The exponential convergence of technology advances in the areas of artificial intelligence, deep learning, the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, advanced robotics, 3D printing, neuroscience, driverless vehicles, virtual reality, and biotechnology should be warning enough that everything is changing—and that you need to change right along with it. Here are just a few thought-provoking predictions:
The loss of manufacturing jobs so far is just a warm-up. Over the last 35 years about seven million manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States due primarily to automation. Seven million lost manufacturing jobs pales in comparison to the likely 80 million job losses due to further technology automation that's on the horizon.
The tech tsunami is our Industrial Revolution—but worse. This technology tsunami has the potential of being as disruptive for us as the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors. Techno-optimists tell us to relax. Don't worry, they say, because technology will produce lots of new jobs to replace the destroyed jobs just like it did in the Industrial Revolution. They believe history will repeat itself. Well, not so fast. First, the human misery in the United Kingdom resulting from the Industrial Revolution lasted 60-90 years depending on the historical research. That is a long time for society to “right” itself. That's a lot of personal pain and misery.
Second, this question is real. Will technology create enough new jobs that advancing technology itself can't do? Unlikely. That is why this time may be different from the Industrial Revolution. We are talking about a major societal challenge—the preservation of the American Dream. We are talking about the future of work in the United States and the world. And we as a society are not prepared. Many of us as individuals are not prepared.
If your job doesn't involve higher-order thinking or EI, it's likely going away. Jobs at high risk include service jobs in retail and fast food, manual labor, long-haul trucking, and jobs for accountants, clerks, paralegals, security guards, telemarketers, customer service reps, construction workers, and professionals in the accounting, legal, financial, consulting, and medical professions. What jobs will be secure? That will change as technology advances.
For now, the consensus opinion is that humans will be needed to do those tasks that require higher-order critical thinking, innovation, creativity, high emotional engagement with other humans, and trade skills requiring real-time problem solving and manual dexterity. Many service jobs that don't require high emotional engagement with humans will be automated. Professional jobs that don't require higher-order thinking and problem solving skills or high emotional engagement will be automated.
Humans will be in a frantic footrace to stay ahead of the smart machines. We all need to begin preparing ourselves and our families by learning how to do the skills that technology won't be able to do well. We can do that by improving our critical thinking, problem solving, innovative/creative thinking, and our emotional intelligence skills and by learning iterative learning processes. We can learn how to manage our thinking and our emotions and how to excel at working in teams on complicated problems.
Those in service jobs can develop their emotional intelligence to a higher level and move into a job that involves the delivery of very personalized customer service directly to individuals. Those in jobs with a high probability of being displaced should start now retraining for a job that technology is not expected to do well. For example, move into jobs that require non-routine problem solving.
This technology tsunami was not seriously discussed in the recent presidential campaign. Therefore, we need a serious national discussion about the future of work; how we can quickly educate our children to prepare them for this new world; how we deal with unemployment levels that could well exceed those levels experienced in the Great Depression; and how we define the new American Dream based on technology realities. However, this discussion may not happen, or it may happen too late. We as individuals must take charge of our own future now.
Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. For more information, visit www.edhltd.com and www.katherineludwig.com