Code should eat the world responsibly

I had a long car trip on Monday, past fields, factories, and construction sites on my way to and from a certification test. I passed semi trucks, delivery vans, and countless other cars with drivers all scooting along just like me, hands on the wheel, headed somewhere.

It all made me feel both excited and sad.

I thought about each of the businesses I passed and how each was being automated, either by pure software or robotics. There wasn’t much I came across that didn’t have the potential to be automated.

For those whose job involves driving a vehicle, they’ve got 5, maybe 10 years left before they start falling out of the labor market. Automated trucks will be lighter/more efficient (no cab needed), safer, and smart enough for most hauls. Human drivers won’t be able to compete against the robots.

Retail/service workers? We’re already seeing that happen. McDonalds has drink and cooking robots, you can bypass the front desk at hotels and check in(and unlock your room) with your phone, and I swear I haven’t talked to a human bank employee in at least 5 years.

Manufacturing? Just-in-time, custom manufacturing with 3D printers. Construction? On-site 3D printers, pre-built modules, and builder drone swarms. Police? Robocop.

It’s not science fiction, it’s here.

Fallout

Automation is a net positive in terms of human progress – it’s enabling us to do incredible things with data, make more informed decisions, and build technology that overcomes our weaknesses and pushes the boundaries of our knowledge – but big social transitions like this one have consequences we need to account for.

In not many years, the majority of unskilled jobs (and many skilled jobs) will be gone and millions of people will fall out of the workforce. If you were able to adapt and are still working, your job will be unrecognizable from what it is today.

In the short term, taxi unions will continue to fight against Uber and Lyft, and they will lose. Uber and Lyft drivers will eventually be replaced by self-driving cars. Any group fighting against automation, doesn’t matter what, will lose. Their efforts are misdirected. Instead of fighting against change, they need to prepare for it as best as possible. We all need to.

It’s foolish to think your job or work product will always be needed. Always is a dangerous word, just ask the Neanderthals.

Marching Forward

Education is one path, but that’s not going to work for everyone. There is a skills gap, but it’s probably not big enough to absorb the number of people who’ll be out of work in the next ten years. That population growth is slowing down will probably be more helpful.

Artistry is another path. Becoming an artist or artisan is just as valid an option as being an engineer, at least if you actually produce work instead of buying paintbrushes and wood chisels – and then just talking about them. Eventually, there might be a greater consumer demand for uniquely human creations than commodity, tech widgets. These things work in weird cycles.

Some people won’t be able (not everyone has the same footing or access) or capable of adapting to the new world regardless of how badly they want to, and we’ll have to do our best to take care of them through the transition. The cost of retraining and social support needs to be considered in our technology and business models, otherwise the cost will be externalized (and not adequately addressed) and millions of people will fall through the cracks.

We don’t need to slow down innovation, we just need to think about innovation in broader terms. It’s not just technology and business, it’s systemic and social in the truest sense of the word. Building software is easy compared to the challenges of the whole system your software, customers, and employees live within.

Technologists need to think about the world our code, tech, and business plugs into, not just the technology and not just the business. We’re transforming the world and it’s our responsibility to make sure everyone has a place in it if they want it.

Image Credit: Peyri Herrera