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Posted: August 10, 2012

The threat of a jobless world

People are getting nervous

Thomas Frey

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently where people are very worried about our coming era of automation, where fewer and fewer jobs will be left for people to do.

A few months ago, I predicted that more than 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030. With technologies like driverless cars, robotic assembly lines and teacherless schools on the horizon, the handwriting is on the wall, and people are getting nervous.

At the same time, our best thinkers don’t seem to have good answers for what comes next. Our best colleges are training students for jobs that will no longer exist. Our business leaders are myopically focused on what’s best for them. They have an obligation to hire the fewest number of people they can get away with, and to trim staff and expenses wherever possible. And politicians don’t know what to think because there are no lobbyists for the future unemployed.

In the past, the vast majority of our layoffs were caused by economic downturns. As we move into the future, the tide will shift, and the majority of our layoffs will be caused by automation and technology.

With all the chaos and uncertainty of a workerless world looming, I’d like to step you through some of the reasons why it will not be as bad as the doomsayers are predicting.

Our Human-Based World

Let me first reiterate this key point. In the past, the vast majority of our layoffs were caused by economic downturns. As we move into the future, the tide will shift, and the majority of our layoffs will be caused by automation and technology.

This is an important factor to understand because as this happens, our social structures will begin to operate with a different set of rules.

We still live in a human-based world. People create our economy. Without people there is no market for goods, no market for raw materials, no market for energy, communications, or medical services. Without people there is no economy.

If you can imagine a world with only one person, there is no economy because there is no one to trade with. In a world with two people, there is a very limited economy resulting from the trading back and forth between the two.

So is the economy in a world with 100 people 50 times more than the world of 2? Actually it’s exponentially greater because of all the options for trading back and forth.

Theoretically, a world with 9 billion people in it will be far greater than one with 6 billion. The Internet is dramatically improving our trade channels, and as a result, improving our economies.

The Three Laws of Automation Parity

As we think about the growing number of machines in our lives, we need to consider how our relationship with them will morph and change.

Machines that are too intrusive, too demanding, or too annoying will never be accepted.

Machines need people more than we need them. A machine without users is like a Transformers movie without an audience.

People can live without machines, but machines cannot live without people.

Yes, there are many scary sci-fi movies where the machines somehow gain magical human-like qualities and start killing humans. But in the real world, where we already have so many problems that we don’t have to fabricate new ones, machines are still very much dependent upon humans.

The automations that we see eliminating jobs today, are all being developed “by humans for humans.” Their primary purpose is for personal gain.

Automation, in many cases, will replace money as the tool of choice for our power elite.

In much the same way that people use weapons to destroy other people, automation and machines in the wrong hands can be a very destructive force.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones. By David on 2012 08 10
You are spot on. No industry today is man-power intensive. My first job offer out of Engineering School in 1979 was in the Aerospace Industry. I have no doubts that I would have ended up in a huge room with dozens of engineering draftsmen. That huge room doesn't even exist anymore. You may find a few temps at their workstations. One underground coal miner with his longwall continuous mining machine is just as productive as 30 or 40 a generation or two ago. By Paul W Studdard on 2012 08 10
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