What’s a robot anyway?
For the most part, we think of Isaac Asimov’s humanoid shaped robots. But in fact, robots are a lot more. See the wikipedia entry:
A robot is a mechanical or virtual artificial agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine that is guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry.
In essence, robots are simply software. This software can control anything. It could be controlling a human-like body (humaniform).
It could simply just guide you along a path — the GPS in your smartphone. In this case, the robot is controlling you!
It could be Google’s self driving car. Or the device that auto-pilots a plane.
A mechanical welding arm in a factory. Or the digital air conditioner keeping your home or office cool.
So back to our jobs now.
The mandate of any business, is going to always be the actualization of profits. And as the customers of a business become less local, its going to matter less whether or not there are any local employees.
After all, if you can produce a good or service in your moms basement and ship it to any part of the world, then it does not matter too much if you hire a human, or a humanoid to make and package that product.
Hotel Management Software
Many years ago in Jamaica I was hired to write some hotel management software. It was supposed to help make reservations, improve the accounting of the operation and generally make the small hotel that contracted me, more efficient.
After spending many months to write the software (in Foxpro and later Clipper), we deployed it in the hotel and went on to work out the bugs to great success.
I remember one night distinctly working with the night desk accountant to show him how the system worked.
Normally he’d take the whole night to reconcile all the guest receipts. Now he could do it in less than 30 minutes.
After a few months I did not see him anymore and I never gave it a second thought, not realizing what had happened.
My Newspaper Delivery Insight
Several years later - after moving to the United States - I delivered newspapers (that’s another blog post) and I got to know the guy who owned the distribution for that area of Brooklyn. The talk came around to how I could make his operation more efficient.
I ended up writing software so he could cut back the hours of his office staff dramatically. He saved money and the delivery operation became more profitable.
Again, I wrote software that actually reduced or removed the income that someone was making. But it was the first time I thought about it.
My career went on deal with medical devices, online advertising, consumer to consumer websites and in all the cases, I kept putting people out of work.
I don’t feel bad about it.
Because pretty much all programmers, everywhere are doing it.
What’s going to happen?
If you’re the person reading this who was put out of work by one of my cohort, I say its time to move on and learn something new.
What’s staring us in the face is a sea-change.
Much office work these days is about shuffling around documents that are digital or hard copy. The guys who deal with digital documents are going to feel the pain first — simply because paper is harder to digitize.
Whole occupations are going to disappear very quickly.
And the smartphone revolution is merely going to accelerate this movement even faster than we thought possible.
As an example, with the new medical devices coming soon (Apple and Google Health Kits) as adjuncts to your phone, the need to physically go see your doctor will decrease dramatically.
The first vehicles to be automated will not be cars. Instead they will be trains, street sweepers, buses and similar workhorses. Most of these can be remotely controlled en-masse by a single individual and already follow largely pre-determined routes.
Gas station attendants are pretty much gone, except in very few states.
News is a commodity.
The garbage near my previous house in Miami was picked up by a robot attached to the side of the truck.
My electric meter is read directly by a computer.
It’s easier (and better) to find a date on your smartphone instead of a bar, church or nightclub.
So what should I do?
My question, instead, is “what are you good at?”.
Professions that require you to do something in a systematic way that could be easily mechanized are not really professions. They’re just a job.
You need to learn a real skill. Have some real knowledge about the thing that you do, in a lot of detail.
And it’s easier that before, since most questions can be answered via the internet in 5 minutes of diligent search or less.
Examples of professions that are not going to be easily replaced by machines are:
- Design of anything
- Art of any kind
- Entertainment of any kind
- Creation of anything
- Helping to save time
- Giving personal services
- "Professional" professions (doctors, lawyers, etc)
In short, once you can “make” or “fix” something or make another person’s life better directly, you’re always going to live long and prosper, no matter what happens in any economy.
Blessing gesture that was the inspiration for the Vulcan salute
So start changing now. Before its too late.
The job numbers are just a mirage at this point.