I’ve had a peripheral interest in this topic ever since my google alert for “virtual assistant” started to flood with Siri related articles. Seemingly over night we had a new competitor for the popular keyword, and for a moment I questioned if we would start having to compete against artificial intelligence for work, a question that was answered in this article by my co-worker Mike. I’ve still been wondering, will siri technology replace human jobs?
Fortunately, Siri is little more than a party trick at the moment, incapable of practically anything beyond scheduling a calendar reminder or preforming a google search. The vast majority of Siri’s success boils down to a great marketing campaign which is currently under investigation for false advertising.
Whether Siri works or not is irrelevant. The concept of commanding artificial intelligence by voice has moved out of the basement apartments of unshaven computer geeks, and into the hands of more than 37 million main street cell phone users. An “arms race” has been started as Android developers struggle produce a response to Siri, and Apple developers struggle to stay ahead of the curve.
It starts to get scary when you consider Siri technology in light of Moore’s Law, which broadly states that advancements in technology are exponential, doubling every 2 years. What will Siri look like 10 years from now? How about Watson, the super computer from Jeopardy?
According to this article from NPR, the U.S. gross domestic product returned to pre-recession levels back in November 2011, but the gains were made with millions fewer workers, partly because technology, computers and machines, continue to replace human workers. We used to think of machines replacing humans “in terms of manufacturing, machines taking over mundane jobs, like twisting a screw into a toaster on an assembly line over and over again” Says Chris Arnold, who continued “But more recently, technology is eliminating higher-skill jobs.”
“We see already that the work of legal discovery — in other words, sitting around and reading huge volumes of documents at the early stage of a lawsuit … is being very quickly and very heavily automated,” says Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher who is co-author of Race Against the Machine. “And by one estimate, it lets one lawyer do the work of 500.” McAfee also says we won’t need as many tax preparers, and that more complex manufacturing is being done by machines, which means even fewer auto workers.
There are certain jobs, like journalism, that you would think are somewhat safe from ever being replaced by machines, but you would be wrong. Consider this:
Wall Street is optimistic about Altria Group (MO), which is slated to report its first quarter results on Thursday, April 26, 2012. Analysts project a profit of 49 cents a share, a rise from 44 cents per share a year ago… The company has been profitable for the last eight quarters, but income has been falling for the last four by an average of 11.9% year-over-year. The company was hit the hardest in the second quarter of the last fiscal year as it saw profit drop by 57.4%.
The most remarkable thing about the text above is that it was written by a computer program developed by a company called Narrative Science. Forbes magazine has an entire blog that is written solely by the computer software, you can read it here.
Here are a few jobs that either won’t exist, or will have very small occupational demand in 20 years. Some of these came from iLookForwardTo.com:
1. Actor: Actors in film and television will be replaced by completely realistic animations. This trend can already be seen with movies like 300 and Avatar. There are many animated scenes in non-animated movies today with out the viewer ever realizing it. The animated scenes were a big deal when Titanic came out in 1997, today the animation is so good, and so common that we don’t even realize it isn’t real when we see it.
2. News anchor: Just like above, completely realistic looking news anchors will replace human anchors. Writing software of the sort made by Narrative Science mentioned above will also reduce the need for the writers since sports, stocks, and weather can already be automated.
3. Radio DJ: Internet radio services like Pandora and Spotify certainly don’t replace radio personalities, but they definitely take a bite out of the radio audience.
4. Cashier: Many grocery stores already have self-operated check stands, where one employee manages the workload that used to require 4 employees.
5. Toll booth operator: Many developed countries have already successfully implemented moeny-and-time saving automatic toll booths.
6. Film reel processor: Even today it seems absurd to have a full time employee engaged in nothing but changing film reels, and most modern movie theaters are rapidly moving away from this.
7. Book Industry: It’s expensive and risky to print books. eReaders like the Nook, Kindle, and iPad are replacing physical books. This will make libraries (and therefore librarians) even more obsolete than they are now. Not to mention the downward pressure that will be placed on those who make paper, ink, and the people who work in book stores.
8. Call center operator: Not long from now, a microchip will call your house and argue that you do in fact need flood insurance.
9. Receptionist: Artificial intelligence is already replacing human receptionists. If you don’t believe me just call Apple support at 800-275-2273 and you will be greeted by a very realistic (but not perfect) computer program that can, like Siri, understand full sentences.
10. Fast Food Drive Through Attendant: This job could easily be replaced by Siri like technology in the next 10 years.
11. Teachers: As more people take virtual classes, less teachers will be needed because one teacher will be able to teach hundreds if not thousands of students.
12. Administrative Assistants: Siri technology combined with consolidation services like LongerDays.com will reduce the need for office admins.
13. Network Administrators: The need for these professionals will be reduced by Cloud based services like Dropbox.
Most people hope that new technology will create new jobs that we can’t imagine at the moment. Like the story of the factory worker who was replaced by a robotic arm, and then the factory worker got a job as a robotic arm repair man. Unfortunately, looking at the numbers reveals that to be wishful thinking.
A recent article by The Atlantic reports that in the past decade, the flow of goods emerging from U.S. factories has risen by about a third, while Factory employment has fallen by roughly the same amount. From 1999-2009 factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one third of all manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared. About the same number of people work in manufacturing now as did at the end of the Depression, even though the American population is more than twice as large today!
So the big question is:
Where will we work, and how will we make money when we start seeing the same level of job declines for receptionists, cashiers, and the other jobs listed above as we’ve seen in the manufacturing industry? This is a problem that will affect everyone – from the minimum wage employees taking orders at fast food restaurants, to the Bill Gates of the future who will depend on those minimum wage workers to buy their products, and everyone else in between. Our economy is a pyramid, and if the base and the middle are in trouble, so is the top.
What will happen when these jobs disappear? Can we function in an “economy” without monetary compensation for labor, and can anyone envision what such a massive economic shift will look like?