Man vs. Superman and the Future of Work
These days, Silicon Valley is not the darling of the world anymore. Rather, it is facing a techlash for all sorts of issues. The foremost among these is automation and the prospect of robots destroying the livelihoods of people en masse. Of Artificial Intelligence becoming a threat to humankind.
All over Silicon Valley, in Board Rooms and in private parties, the Future of Work is a much-visited topic. Almost every major company has an AI product or an AI-enabled process initiative under exploration. I have spoken with numerous entrepreneurs who actually have software products in the market that are replacing 4000–5000 jobs at each of their customer sites.
There are a few million (could be four, could be ten) mundane back-office jobs that are, within five years, going to be replaced by AI.
There are also jobs like truck drivers and factory workers that are facing the threat of becoming extinct.
Even programmers, Silicon Valley’s hot properties, are not immune to the threat. Code generators may take away their livelihoods as well.
PwC has recently published a report titled, Workforce of the Future: The competing forces shaping 2030, where it forecasts that by 2030, only 9% of the US workforce will be full-time workers. It forecasts global “stop the bots” marches starting 2020. It suggests that either people will have high-paying jobs, or no job at all.
The report also talks about augmenting human beings with brain implants that can help them take on jobs that require higher levels of cognitive skills by 2030.
This is very serious, not very far away, and needs thoughtful consideration.
Let us say, you are on the Board of Directors of a technology company that has multi-vector Artificial Intelligence activities.
First, your company is developing a set of products that use Big Data and Machine Learning, and are sold to, say, banks. These banks each have 5000–10,000 manual back-office workers in different parts of the world doing what you will now automate. Let’s say, your customer base consists of 200 banks. You are about to destroy the livelihoods of a million to two million people.
The banks will pay your company a million dollars on average per year. You’ve just created a $200 million super profitable revenue stream.
However, you face a backlash from these million to two million displaced workers who take to social media to vilify your company.
The movement spreads.
You have a PR nightmare in your hands.
What is your strategy to deal with this situation before it gets out of hand?
Next, let us say, you are on the Board of one of those large banks that are buying AI software from 30 different tech vendors and automating process after process, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs — either within their own workforce, or in the workforces of their BPO service providers in India or the Philippines.
Same kind of backlash on the cards unless you do something about it preemptively.
Now, let us go back to that software company Board you are on. Your company has recently started implementing automated code generators. You had 2000 programmers. Now, you only need 50 high level ones to architect the systems and direct the code generators. All the mundane coding work is automated.
You’re about to lay off 1950 smart programmers!
There is, however, a silver lining. A lot of data is being generated, and Data Science is a desirable skill now. So, you take 200 of the 1950 programmers, and train them as Data Scientists. They’re smart. They can learn. The others, even if they’re let go, find jobs as data scientists in other firms.
But those low-end BPO workers — and there are tens of thousands of them — cannot be trained as Data scientists. They just don’t have the IQ for it.
As a Board Member of a public company, you are being asked to make a decision on whether the company is going to pay for brain implants for tens of thousands of your employees.
Will the employees accept the offer?
Most likely, yes. After all, if your only chance for a livelihood is to become Superman, wouldn’t you abandon all inhibition and embrace the opportunity?
We’re going into very complex territory where questions of ethics, sustainability, and plain survival will come into play.
I suppose, within my lifetime, I will be facing these questions.
Needless to say, I don’t have clear answers yet.
Looking For Some Hands-On Advice?
For entrepreneurs who want to discuss their specific businesses with me, I’m very happy to assess your situation during my free online 1Mby1M Roundtables, held almost every week.