Stunning Progress in Technology Brings The Death of Unskilled Labor

As part of the online web series Which Way Next, hosted by Singularity University, Vivek Wadhwa, VP of Academics and Innovation, sat down with Carl Bass, CEO at Autodesk, to explore some of the pivotal technologies coming online that promise to redefine the jobs available to humans in the 21st Century. Check out the video below:

During the discussion, Bass points out that we are now at a great inflection point in the automation of labor. Extraordinary breakthroughs in the areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing are all converging upon one another yielding a world full of technologies plucked right from the world of science fiction.

To date, the damage to the U.S. manufacturing industry caused by outsourcing was mainly an issue of cost. What the developed world might consider labor camp conditions is desirable work that is competed for overseas. In China for example, work that consists of highly repetitive tasks for 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week pays only $200 per month in salary. Now the much bigger problem is that even these jobs are disappearing, not because of outsourcing but because of total automation by machine.

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass talks to Singularity University (SU) VP of Innovation & Academics Vivek Wadhwa and SU CEO Rob Nail

According to Bass, the notion that you can easily enjoy a middle class lifestyle with a high school education and a strong work ethic is just not true in today’s labor market, and may never be true again. The nature of work available to humans is fundamentally evolving, and doing so overnight.

Robotics as a technology is far from new, but is ready to displace hundreds of millions of employees around the globe. Canon recently announced plans to entirely phase out human labor in many of their factories over the next few years, while Amazon just doled out $775 million to acquire the robotics company Kiva, with plans to fully automate their warehouse operations. The next camera you buy could be fabricated by the hands of machines and delivered to your doorstep care of your friendly neighborhood delivery bot.

The turbo-charged growth in robotics is thanks in large part to progress in Artificial Intelligence, and these next generation AI’s are sure to gobble up jobs as well. Consumer AI’s like Apple’s Siri, still in her diapers, may reach adulthood much quicker than many realize. Algorithms have already replaced much of the trading floor work on Wall Street, and other algorithms are in development to do everything from grade essays, to diagnose illnesses. You may have seen Watson, the supercomputer designed by IBM, which manhandled the two best all-time Jeopardy contestants on the hit game show back in 2011. Watson should soon have a medical degree, and could be diagnosing patients at the doctor’s office within a year or less. Algorithms are now capable of doing even the subtlest of human tasks; like creating music. Researchers at the University of Bristol developed a mathematical formula that can predict the commercial success of pop songs, while a German engineering firm built a stringed instrument that uses AI to compose new music.

Carl Bass explains how Americans have weathered paradigm shifts in the past, evolving from a largely agrarian workforce to an urban industrial one. We struggle to envision the jobs of tomorrow, but they could come from fields like renewable energy and synthetic biology. The question no one seems to have the answer to, however, is what is to become of unskilled labor, and those hundreds of millions whose jobs are never coming back?

Aaron Frank
Aaron Frank
Aaron Frank is a researcher, writer, and consultant who has spent over a decade in Silicon Valley, where he most recently served as principal faculty at Singularity University. Over the past ten years he has built, deployed, researched, and written about technologies relating to augmented and virtual reality and virtual environments. As a writer, his articles have appeared in Vice, Wired UK, Forbes, and VentureBeat. He routinely advises companies, startups, and government organizations with clients including Ernst & Young, Sony, Honeywell, and many others. He is based in San Francisco, California.
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