You've heard a million times: there’s a robot coming for your job. I’ve written about it before. Several times.
New evidence suggests the reality is no joke.
The New York Times kicked the week off with a poignant story on the subject: “Indian Technology Workers Worry About a Job Threat: Technology.”
It punctuates a story on the raw numbers of tech workers who are losing their work to robots, chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning with some human stories. The article opens with something a good many American workers will relate to: a tale of a laid off tech worker who laments, “I have an 11-year-old child. My wife is not working. How to pay the home loans?”
To some, the layoffs, financial foibles and general malaise creeping into India’s tech sector might raise a little schadenfreude. Why not? The same Indian workers now facing uncertainty due to technology are some of the very ones who took jobs from American tech workers through offshoring. Before taking any pleasure in their difficulty, however, you might want to consider what they may really represent—not a threat to your job, but a possible glimpse into your future.
In the past few years, AI, bots and robots have reduced the need for relatively unskilled or moderately skilled workers. This is what’s hurting Indian outsourcing firms today. Think self-service apps, automated customer service systems and more. But things are changing. The Monday broadcast of the NPR show, “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” focused on robots and AI systems that don’t just match human labor, but actually exceed it. I’m not talking about robotic arms that lift heavy things that humans cannot, but software that can apply critical thinking to a task or challenge better than we can. The big change guests Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson discussed on the show is the recent improvement in software technology.
McAfee believes we are underestimating how disruptive AI, machine learning and robotics will be to our economy, especially when it comes to employment. To explain how, he and Brynjolfsson wrote a new book, “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future,” which drops on Tuesday from W.W. Norton & Co.
“Just in the past couple of years we have finally created machines that are not bound by the limits of our knowledge,” says McAfee, a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business. New technologies can learn on their own and develop capacities and capabilities that we cannot match. This includes everything from playing sophisticated games to diagnosing diseases.
While the pair believe that technology will create many new jobs, they also recognize that millions of jobs including ones like yours and mine could be impacted. Take the story of the displaced workers at Google data centers that they tell in their new book. Until recently, Google employed a legion of scientists and technicians to manage energy consumption in its facilities. Some of these people were very highly compensated workers. But after the company turned its own machine learning and AI technology to the problem, Google soon discovered that it’s technology could manage energy consumption better than its people. Energy consumption immediately dropped by 15 percent and cooling costs fell by 40 percent.
“There are lots of other applications like that,” says Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. Any application that requires a set of inputs from “column A” and outputs from “column B” could theoretically be improved by turning neural networks onto it. “There are many problems that humans are still better at… but in those domains where you define a set of inputs and outputs, machines are just kicking the butts of humans.”
How long, I wonder, before that includes managing, monitoring and provisioning basic technology services? Building a world-class hybrid cloud today requires the input of a creative, trained professional. But for how long?
If you’re a business owner or technician whose organization provides networking, security, back up and recovery, this question looms large. You still have time to adjust. But you’re going to have to get moving, which is going to be difficult given how busy many managed service providers and VARs are today. While you’re busy working, however, machines will be learning. How to better serve customers. How to solve difficult problems. And how to replace the humans that created them.
Staying one, two or even three steps ahead of your customers is going to get more difficult as technology learns to improve itself. But it will be a must if you want to thrive in the new digital services era.
Looking for more perspective? Then give a new report published Monday on the IT skills gap from CompTIA a read. In the report, author Amy Carrado, senior director of research and market intelligence at CompTIA, notes that, the growing skills gap has become a catch-all term to describe a range of workforce concerns. “Despite the consequences, most organizations do not have a formal strategy to address skills gaps,” she writes.
There’s money for those who can.