My new book, Silicon Collar, which will be released in Kindle format on Friday, is on balance a positive book about the impact of automation on jobs, but as I write
“While the practitioners I interviewed were positive about the new technologies and their impact on work, a number of academicians, analysts, and economists are worried sick about the new machine age and envision a jobless future. Their pessimism, amplified by politicians, is leading to widespread gloom on the street. Internationally, it is even leading to referenda about whether citizens should be guaranteed minimum incomes, irrespective of work status, in anticipation of such jobless societies.”
I read tons of pessimistic books and papers as part of my research.
“Google the words "A world without work" and you find articles in The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Google "When machines take over" and you find a cover issue of The New Scientist, and stories at BBC News and The Telegraph among others.”
I tend to have a positive outlook on life and can understand how many don’t share that sunny point of view. But in many cases the analysis of many of these experts is glib, even sloppy. I take on many in the book, but here’s a couple.
Two Oxford U researchers studied data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and concluded “according to our estimates, about 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk.”. So I looked at their analysis in detail.
“The professors had calculated a high 0.79 "susceptibility to computerisation factor" (with 1.0 being the highest) to heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers. This, when the U.S. trucking industry says driver shortages could reach as high as 175,000 positions by 2024 (even if the industry adopts autonomous trucks, regulations will likely require a driver as a backup). The professors had assigned an even higher factor of 0.84 to cartographers and photogrammetrists (who deduce measurements from images), which the BLS projects as one of the fastest growing occupations over the next decade. They had assigned a yet higher 0.94 factor to accountants and auditors, whereas hiring at U.S. public accounting firms jumped to reach record levels in 2013-2014.”
Another is my former employer, Gartner. Peter Sondergaard, Head of Research, told the audience at the firm’s 2014 Symposium/IT Expo:
"Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025...New digital businesses require less labor; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can. By 2018, digital business will require 50% fewer business process workers”
“Many people just picked up on Sondergaard’s "one in three jobs will be converted" statement. The fact is that Gartner issues hundreds of similar predictions each year and rarely audits them for future accuracy. It usually assigns a probability to them, as an indicator of its confidence in such a prediction, and the Sondergaard statements did not indicate any such hedge.”
“While Gartner had a timeline for its projection, the Oxford professors did not even attempt one.
Similarly, few appear to have asked the Oxford professors whether it is all doom and gloom. What about new jobs from the automation and new digital businesses? J.P. Gownder, an analyst at the research firm Forrester, is one of the few to have analyzed the Oxford work, and he estimated that "new automation will cause a net loss of only 9.1 million U.S. jobs by 2025.” His numbers are well under the roughly 70 million jobs that Frey and Osbourne believe to be in danger of vaporization.”
All this negative talk is leading to the “sum of all fears”
The reality, however, is that when Oxford, MIT, McKinsey, and Gartner talk, the person on the street and even business executives typically just read the headlines, and when all of these big brands agree on something, it solidifies readers’ overall impression—in this case, pessimism.
It is as Winston Churchill once said:
"Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears."
Rather than combat emotion with emotion, it just lead me to more research
I found inspiration in something I had heard from Bill Joy, one of the cofounders of Sun Microsystems. Joy, who was once described by Fortune as the "Edison of the Internet," had this guidance: “If you cannot solve a problem, make the problem bigger. If you draw a bigger circle, you start to see several systems you can work on.”
In the case of this book, drawing a bigger circle meant looking at how automation has gradually rolled out over the last century and not just in the last few years.