I originally wrote this piece for Quartz on November 21st, 2019. View the original here.
The warnings of a dire future driven by artificial intelligence and automation have intensified, especially in election season, but several clues point me to a different conclusion. One of more jobs and hope.
For my interviews with Andrew Yang and Governor Hickenlooper, and even SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, it seems as though only the lucky few will have jobs once robots take over, but the idea that more automation will destroy our workforce is extremely misplaced. Here’s the problem though, 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 this future. And because of that, fear rules. But it doesn’t have to.
Fear of technology has a long history
The historical arguments, seem to have little bearing on a person if they already fear AI and automation. Fear, after all, is a difficult thing to conquer. In the 18th-century agriculture age, farmers feared industrial age machines would take their jobs, and those same workers eventually panicked about computers.
People feared the automobile’s disruption of horse husbandry, carriage makers, and blacksmiths making horseshoes. ATMs would replace bank tellers, textile automation would replace textile workers and even Disney animators feared computers would take all their job. In all classic cases, more jobs resulted as automation increased margins, allowing the hiring of more workers.
In retrospect, we see our fear was misplaced, but because of the future visualization problem, it doesn’t unseat our fears—that’s the problem. People fear what they don’t understand, period. Consider the term “horseless carriage,” was defined by what would be lost, instead of potential gains.
As Daniel Pink accurately illustrated in his book A Whole New Mind, our 20th-century information age of knowledge workers are currently moving into the 21st century conceptual age where AI and automation are said to do all the jobs humans can do, but there are already signs that indicate a job rise is around the corner. And small businesses will see the biggest benefit.
AI and automation will tilt e-com to small business
The accepted belief is a scenario where companies like Amazon are the primary benefactors of AI and automation. The implication is where Jeff Bezos himself provides the world with everything it needs without any human staff. (Don’t forget, robots can fix themselves.) It’s for this reason, leaders believe they have too much power and must be broken up. But Amazon doesn’t have this power—their position in online commerce may actually be at significant risk.
My Warby Parker sunglasses, Allbirds sneakers, and my wife’s Rothy’s are daily reminders of the difficult future tech companies like Amazon face. Without utilizing Amazon, Walmart, or even Target, the acknowledged keyholders to internet commerce, Warby Parker has seen 500% growth with a one billion dollar valuation; Allbirds hit a one point 4 billion dollar evaluation in just two years; and Rothy’s posted more than one hundred forty million in revenue.
A likely scenario is Amazon, Walmart, and Target quickly bleeding out via a thousand paper cuts. Their market share may be eroded by smaller, more responsive and more numerous adversaries thanks to direct-to-consumer practices. And the pressure is mounting.
Shopify has enabled one million small businesses, generating one hundred eighty-three billion dollars in economic impact from 2016 – 2018 slowly gaining on Amazon’s two hundred billion economic impact in 2018. You can thank Shopify for providing the platform all those product companies advertising on Instagram rely on. And they’re not alone.
Etsy has made it easy for homepreneurs to produce items and gifts for consumers anywhere in the world—it’s aggressively taking on e-commerce competitors. Doesn’t it feel like every day on Instagram another direct-to-consumer product pops up? Often by a small group of entrepreneurs who get products to market quickly.
AI and automation will empower small teams
Small team empowerment via technology like AI and automation won’t just speed up, it will be the norm. Consider the economic opportunities for small businesses and workers as AI and automation solve the last mile problem alone. Blu Couriers, a crowdsourced delivery app being used in Australia and New Zealand are already working on it. As the cost of shipping drops to nothing, home businesses will thrive. Here’s how:
A 16-year-old’s first car will be his first job as it drives around town making deliveries or picking up passengers according to Tesla.
As companies like Foodee, created by Ryan Spong, connect business catering needs, local chefs will win the game as automated cars fulfill their delivery route, while they enjoy movie night with the family.
A solo inventor will create a smartphone accessory, 3D printing it in her basement, utilizing ultra-cheap global overnight distribution due to thousands of specialized drone delivery services.
Using only 3D printers and circuit board printers, a three-person team with no production support will create five thousand specialized smartphones specifically designed for the visually impaired.
AI-powered ships will travel outside the earth’s atmosphere, working in tandem with small drones to carry a disabled veteran to France to teach a new wood working-class, coming back to his rural home in Iowa to see his granddaughter’s piano recital.
But this more positive AI and automation future doesn’t just end at new revenue sources and opportunity. It can greatly reduce costs too.
AI and automation will empower people and reduce living costs.
As many of us fear a rise in monthly living costs, AI and automation can potentially ease that pressure soon.
Healthcare accounts for 18% of US GDP, but as AI healthcare improves outcomes and lowers costs led by world-class physicians like Dr. Michael Abramoff a new future will take shape.
Imagine the free blood pressure machine in your Walgreens being replaced by an AI solution that is 10 times more accurate than your physician, and free. And with the pending physician shortage, AI innovators like Sean Chou believe this couldn’t come at a better time. In the same way that ATMs led to more bank tellers being hired, perhaps automation will lead to more physicians being hired, simulteanously maximizing their time with patients.
Chou believes AI is best utilized to perform jobs people can’t or won’t do, lowering operating costs. His company, Catalytic, creates a human-centric AI through a process guided by the very employees that some believe will be disrupted. As a former FieldGlass exec, he understands what makes workforces tick, and firmly believes AI and automation will empower people, not take jobs.
Call centers are often an example of a job that will vanish in the near future, but does any living person want to take the same customer service call over and over? Of course not, which is why call center turnover is so high. You experience this every time you wait on hold hearing those familiar words, “your call is very important to use, please hold the line.”
Chou further explains AI and automation will be used by law firm to quickly go through decades of case law. Instead of a paralegal finding that diamond in the rough case working late for months, it will happen in minutes. This, in turn, will lower costs, increasing access for those who need legal assistance but can’t afford it, dramatically increasing business for law firms.
Just as the simple automobile created more possibilities than we could imagine, AI and automation will open up a global employment gold rush, opening up new jobs for people in extreme poverty across the globe, and when those people suddenly find income, they will become a whole new demographic for marketers to sell to.
Visualize with me: a future where cube farms, once filled with tired office workers, become coworking spaces reminiscent of 18th-century town squares. Instead of bakers, leather workers, and ironworkers, however, we’d work alongside each other collaborating on new ideas you can’t even dream of. All made possible by the healthy AI and automation future that we have been taught to fear.