By Gary Beemer, Guest Columnist
Change can be a fickle thing. It can run us over, leaving nothing but unrecognizable roadkill. Or it can take us on an exhilarating ride with plenty of unexpected twists and turns.
We can try to hide — unobserved — in the slow lane. Or we can embrace it, taking a hard left into the fast lane where an unprecedented level of change is moving at 24,791 miles per hour.
We’ve been here before, but not really. Past generations have seen us go from horse and buggy to modern automobiles. That’s an increase in miles per hour from 10 to 70 on most roads. But today’s change comes in the form of a rocket ship versus a car due to advances in technology — specifically Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Deep Machine Learning (DML).
Some believe that this type of technology is the electronic incarnation of evil, born of nefarious computer scientists who eschew humans in favor of profit, or in their hubris unwittingly create machine-based technology that will eventually deem humans as … unnecessary.
Zealous proponents of AI and DML tell us that most human jobs will be gone in the not-so-distant future, which will lead to high unemployment and the need for governments to consider providing humans a minimum living wage derived from the productivity of the machines that replaced us. The bridge to devaluing human work is well on its way according to a recent Harvard and Princeton study which concludes that “gig” work such as contract employment, temporary jobs, and freelancing is replacing permanent human jobs.
So the tragic story goes like this … permanent jobs are going away, we’ll have to do gig jobs as they go away, and eventually we won’t have any jobs because the bots can do everything better.
If you’ve already begun brewing a pot of hemlock tea, you might want to consider another view. Instead of blaming computer scientists and digital industrialists, perhaps we should look at consumerism, globalism and economics. People like stuff, and we want it to get continually better, and cheaper. The advent of globalization has created a worldwide physical and virtual marketplace where choices have exploded, and consumers can compare benefits and prices in an instant. The only way to maintain a competitive advantage and keep customers happy is to find more effective and efficient ways to use the limited resources that each company has at its disposal. This includes cutting costs by reducing the number of human jobs and replacing them with technology.
This concept isn’t new. Replacing humans with modern technology has been around since 1784 when the steam engine developed the first mechanical production equipment. In 1870 electricity revolutionized production, while the division of labor and specialization paved the road to mass production, which displaced skilled craftsmen with more narrowly trained factory workers. In 1969, electronics, IT and automated production began replacing factory workers. The latest advances in AI and DML greatly accelerate this trend because AI/DML machines don’t need lines of code to tell them what to do. They can see, hear, think, move and adjust to changing conditions by learning, much like humans do.
Companies and consumers are reaping the benefits of extreme technological innovation, but they come at a cost. Bots will replace bods, and the idea of long term and secure employment may be something that we only read about in history books, or more accurately, store in archived digital files in the virtual cloud.
But there is hope. Bots may be able to learn from existing data, but the human mind is able to imagine what has never been, and what could be. This characteristic is what separates us from machines.
Technology has the potential to free us from mundane and unsatisfying work – regardless of the color or our collar. Early farming technology produced far more food than ever before, and freed farm hands from long days doing manual labor that required no formal education and severely limited their future prospects. Technology freed factory workers from the monotony of repetitive and boring tasks that offered paychecks but not necessarily satisfaction, while providing products to more people at lower prices. Productivity and innovation soared with the advent of computers at work and home, allowing individuals to develop skills and start businesses that formerly where out of their reach. Wireless networks fed by satellites provide content and education to people who a few years ago where living in a pre-industrial revolution world. The newest technologies will be our facilitators and workmates, freeing our most valuable asset — our minds — to pursue the next great discovery, invention, thought, process or cure.
Yes, it’s scary. Current technology can rock our sense of well-being if we hold on to the past too tightly and fail to embrace the change that is most certainly coming. At the end of the day we must remember — technology exists to improve and enhance our lives. Without humans, it has no purpose.
Gary Beemer is a member of the Marketing Faculty at The University of Tampa and the University of South Florida. Prior to teaching, he worked for nearly 25 years in Sales and Marketing Management for Mars Inc., and prior to this, he started and ran a successful financial services business. He is the current Director of Content for the American Marketing Association TB and is a former Community Columnist and blogger for the Tampa Tribune and TBO.