Earlier this week. Amazon announced their latest innovation, Go. Think of Go as a futuristic grocery store. Using sensors, artificial intelligence and computer vision, Amazon is reinventing the shopping experience that we’ve all grown accustomed to for the last seventy years. That’s right. No more check out lines, registers or cashiers. If you want to buy an item, just grab it from the shelf, and then Amazon will automatically add the item to your virtual shopping cart. When you walk out of the store, Amazon will magically charge you for that item. Amazing, right? Yup. It’s also potentially scary when you think of the implications that this, and other forms automation, could have on our society.
Many industries are facing unprecedented changes largely driven by increasing wages and advancements robotics / artificial intelligence. This trend isn’t just limited to retail in the Amazon example but also transportation, food service, manufacturing, administrative to throw out some examples. The number of jobs on the line is potentially massive. There are 3.4M cashiers nationwide according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are 3.5M professional truck drivers in the U.S. according to the American Trucking Association. There are 4.7M food service workers in the U.S. (BLS). These are just a few examples. I don’t even need dig up all the numbers to conclude tens of millions of American jobs are at risk due to rising labor costs and automation.
All that said, I’m not here to paint a doomsday picture like many before me have. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have been written about our robot overloads and how we’ll eventually become slaves to them. I’m also not here to look at what we stand to lose. Instead, I’m here to look at what we all stand to gain in a world of mass automation. I believe if managed properly this massive shift could unlock enormous long term opportunities for our society and increase our overall quality of life. While there’s no doubt some pain will be felt in the short to mid-term, humanity has faced several major technological upheavals over the last thousand years and we’ve walked away every time with higher productivity, more time to focus on new activities and a higher quality of life. The mass automation era will be no different.
But first, how do we get there? Implicit within the concept of mass automation is the reality of significant structural unemployment. People will lose jobs, and those people will need to find new ways to support themselves and to support their families. This means several things, not all of which are bad. First, there’s a huge opportunity that exists around education and retraining. Retraining programs — if executed effectively — will yield not only a growth in talent available for existing American industries, but also an enormous increase in human capacity to tackle new or unsolved problems. As mass automation sets people free from menial work, socially, economically, technologically, and globally meaningful issues will become practically relevant in way they’ve never been before.
Of course, government and private retraining programs will hardly be enough to convert the millions of displaced laborers into newly productive workers in emerging industries, but they are a good start. Business, governments, and non-profits alike are already thinking about how to solve this issue. They’ll continue to do so. And I expect they’ll be successful. But for now, let’s move on. Assuming a large portion of the population no longer needs — or is able to — work in “traditional” industries, what will they do?
That brings us to the most interesting ramification of mass automation. How will we fill our time? Maybe some portion of the population will sit on the couch, drink beer, and watch reruns of Seinfeld ad infinitum. But I have more faith in us than that. I believe that we will begin, evermore rapidly, to solve the problems which have long perplexed humanity. More minds will be put to work against the problems of climate change, for example. Hopefully we’ll be able to invent and implement new responses to large societal issues like poverty, crime, sickness, pollution, the list goes on. But the true promise of increased human capacity goes beyond any one problem. By freeing our time and resources and redirecting them towards our largest problems, we’ll be able to focus on helping one another. Building and rebuilding communities. Engaging with each other emotional and spiritually. Being of service to our fellows. Ironically enough, I believe that mass automation will give us the capacity to be more human.
On top of all that, we get to reimagine the concept of work. What if we didn’t get up each day — 5 days a week — and sit in an office from 9 to 5. What if we engaged with the projects, the people, and the pursuits about which we’re most passionate? What if we did that always? And what if we were compensated not for our hours, but for our impact? What if everyone was guaranteed a universal basic income so that they could focus on these things? Making this shift will be difficult for many of us, but with strong, affordable retraining programs, millions of Americans will be granted opportunities that most of us can’t imagine today.
In the world of mass automation we will have more time than ever before. I don’t believe that this time will be wasted. I believe it will be invested. In self-expression. In art. In education. In service to one another. I believe that our newfound freedom will lead not to the destruction of our society, but to its elevation. So when I hear about a fully automated supermarket, I think not about our robot overlords, but about our potential as humans, and about achieving that potential.
(Thanks you to my trusted RRE colleague Cooper Zelnick for editing this post)