We constantly hear foreshadowing of a jobless American future and warnings of the dire reality artificial intelligence and automation will bring. My own conversations with policymakers like presidential hopeful Andrew Yang and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper have reflected this, and even SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has echoed their concerns.
Personally, I challenge the idea that more automation will destroy our workforce. But because we don’t hear specific scenarios where AI and automation produce more jobs, quality careers, and lower cost of living, we can’t visualize an alternative future. Fear sets in.
My arguments for the benefits of job automation are often cut short when someone places the burden of proof of a positive future on me.
The historical arguments I usually bring up seem to have little bearing on a person if they already fear AI and automation. Even when I reference how, in the 18th century agricultural age, farmers feared industrial machines would take their jobs, and those same workers eventually panicked about computers. In both these cases, political and social leaders were wrong.
But wait, there’s more.
People feared the impact of the automobile on horse husbandry, carriage makers, and blacksmiths. In recent history, ATMs were going to replace bank tellers, and new textile automation would replace textile workers. In both classic cases, more jobs resulted as automation increased margins, allowing the hiring of more workers, for new types of jobs.
We can see now that our fear was misplaced, but this doesn’t make the future any easier to visualize. And I think that’s the real problem.
Because every past group of people had difficulty visualizing the future, they feared it. Consider the term “horseless carriage,” which fixated on and defined what would be lost, instead of the potential economic gains from opening up national commerce.
But as we move from the 20th century information age of knowledge workers into the 21st century conceptual age where AI and automation are said to do all the jobs humans can do, there are already signs that more jobs are right around the corner.
Here’s the future I see.
Tilting e-com to small business
Some believe companies like Amazon will be the primary benefactor of AI and automation, providing the world with everything it needs, while firing all their staff. Some politicians believe they have too much power and must be broken up.
But Amazon does not have the power you (or even its leaders) believe it does. In fact, its position in online commerce is at significant risk.
Almost daily, my Warby Parker sunglasses, my Allbirds sneakers, and my wife’s cute Rothy’s flats are a reminder of what the future holds. Without utilizing Amazon, Walmart, or even Target, and often being labeled as the keyholders to internet commerce, Warby Parker has seen 500% growth and a $1 billion valuation. Allbirds hit a $1.4 billion valuation in just two years. Rothy’s posted more than $140 million in revenue.
Amazon and even Walmart may quickly bleed out via a thousand paper cuts. If they aren’t careful, their market share will be eroded by smaller, yet more responsive and more numerous adversaries thanks to direct-to-consumer practices. (My brother in law just spent four hours with Amazon customer service to troubleshoot his broken Ring doorbell. It still doesn’t work. That type of service is not likely to lead to loyalty.)
Shopify has enabled 1 million individual creators and small businesses, generating $183 billion in economic impact from 2016 to 2018, slowly gaining on Amazon’s $200 billion economic impact in 2018. Have you noticed all the unique Instagram products lately? It feels like every day yet another direct-to-consumer product pops up, launched by a small group of friends or cohorts who can get products to market quickly. You can thank Shopify for much of that.
Etsy has made it easy for homepreneurs to produce soap and crafts for consumers anywhere in the world, and it’s aggressively taking on e-commerce competitors.
In the same vein, Kickstarter and Indiegogo were unthinkable 10 years ago. Power is slowly shifting to individuals and small teams.
Empowering small teams
Small team empowerment will not just speed up—it will be the norm. Consider the economic opportunities for workers, entrepreneurs, and creators when AI, automation, and robots solve the last mile problem alone. Home businesses will thrive as the cost of shipping drops to nothing.
A 16-year-old’s first car will also be their first job as it drives around town making deliveries or picking up passengers—as early as next year, according to Tesla.
Individual chefs will be able to compete in the 21st-century home-delivered food industry. As companies like Foodee, created by Ryan Spong, connect business catering needs to local chefs, automated cars will fulfill their delivery route—while they enjoy movie night with the family. Naturally, this will evolve to home delivery too.
Visualize a world where a solo inventor creates a new smartphone accessory and 3D prints it in her basement, benefiting from global overnight distribution due to thousands of specialized drone delivery services, charging fractions of a cent per mile.
Using similar 3D and circuit board printers, a three-person team with no production support can create a short run of 5,000 smartphones specifically designed for the visually impaired.
AI-powered air-ships, traveling outside the earth’s atmosphere, will work in tandem with small drones to carry a disabled veteran to France and Spain to teach his new wood working-class, coming back to his rural home in Guthrie Center, Iowa in time to see his granddaughter’s ballet recital.
The possibilities for AI and automation don’t end at new revenue sources and opportunity, however. Many see potential in its ability to greatly reduce living costs.
Reducing cost and empowering people
As many Americans, and indeed people around the globe, fear high living costs, AI and automation can potentially ease that pressure.
Healthcare currently accounts for nearly 19% of US GDP. AI healthcare would would improve outcomes and lowers costs, and physicians like Dutch-American ophthalmologist and AI entrepreneur Michael Abramoff believe a new normal will take shape. Imagine the free blood pressure machine in your Walgreens being upgraded by an AI solution that is 10 times more accurate than your physician. With the pending physician shortage, this couldn’t come at a better time.
AI leaders like Sean Chou, who runs an AI automation company, says that, in the same way that ATMs led to more bank tellers being hired, automation will lead to more physicians being hired and/or maximizing their time with patients.
Beyond healthcare, Chou believes AI is more likely to perform jobs people can’t or don’t want to do, lowering company costs. His company, Catalytic, is focused on creating a human-centric AI future through a processes guided by the very employees that many believe will be disrupted. As a former executive of workforce company FieldGlass, he understands what makes workforces tick. And he believes AI and automation will empower people, not take jobs.
Time is money
Does anyone want to take the same customer service call over and over? No. Which is probably why call center turnover is so high, leading to longer wait times from companies who assure you your call is important to them as you waste time on hold. Time is money.
Chou also believes AI can be used by law firms in ways never before seen. Imagine a paralegal going through decades of case law in minutes instead of months, lowering costs and increasing access for those who need legal assistance but don’t have the cash. Expert legal counsel wouldn’t just be for the rich, but for anyone who needs justice.
Just as the automobile created more opportunities than we could possibly imagine, a AI and automation could open up a global air-and-sea interstate system could develop, creating new jobs for people in extreme poverty across the globe, lowering commuting costs to nothing. When people who currently live in poverty can suddenly find income, they will become a whole new demographic for marketers to sell to.
Visualize a future where corporate cube farms, once filled with tired and depressed office workers, become modern co-working spaces reminiscent of 18th-century town squares. Except instead of bakers, leather workers, glass blowers, and ironworkers, we’d work alongside each other collaborating on new ideas you can’t even dream of … all thanks to the healthy AI and automation future that we have been taught to fear.