Some jobs aren’t coming back. Others may soon be on the chopping block. I have personally aggravated this problem.
Over the last seven years, I had been a robo advice entrepreneur building software that allows regular people to invest online at much lower cost than previously possible. The software automates a meaningful portion of the financial adviser workflow, making it self-service and simpler to use. Consumers are better off, and shareholders of companies like mine would be better off. Right?
Wrong. It’s not quite so simple.
While life is getting better for the statistical consumer, things are going to get much tougher for many American workers.
In the next five years, over a million trucking jobs, the backbone of transportation in the United States, will be threatened by self-driving cars. The call center industry is in similar peril, with automated chatbots living in messaging apps replacing human phone support.
White collar workers are similarly at risk. Financial advisers, insurance agents, bank tellers and other front-line financial services employees are facing a wave of automation platforms that want to take their jobs and do it for free.
Today, the focus of corporations is two-fold: clients and shareholders. One begets the other. We must add a third constituent to this list — the employee as a key stakeholder in the technology we design. This implies finding a place for human work, craft and fulfillment within the machine.
I recently returned from Techonomy 2016, a Silicon Valley conference that looks at how technology impacts society. The key message, delivered by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, is that no matter who is president, technology’s relentless march forward will continue. Globalization, automation, artificial intelligence and democratization will persist — breaking down borders of access and empowering clients.
But many business leaders, politicians, technologists, entrepreneurs, and analysts are missing the bigger picture.
The world had a referendum, with events like Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory uncovering a narrative about ignored populations. People are not only suffering economically but are disconnected from society and displaced emotionally. If you are not a coal miner, carpenter or mechanic — who are you?
Yes, technological developments make our lives richer, safer, more transparent and full of wonder. "Software is eating the world," said entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. But this continued digestion of human craft and bread-winning has a natural limit. At some point, the benefits of receiving free digital music — followed by digital news, medicine, transportation and finance — are outweighed by the displacement of human lives.
For those of us in high-tech, we remain connected to a creative and fulfilling economic role. By creating thinking machines and workflows, we feel good and productive. We improve the consumption lives of billions of people. But I fear this is no longer enough, and it is time to develop a broader intuition and empathy for our fellow citizens.
How do we do this? One way is to empower a class of blue collar developers or "new collar workers," a term used by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.
Many of today’s programmers have specialized technical education from elite universities. But perhaps there is a role in the economy for those with a different background, who can still create systems, but do so at the level of workflows rather than code. There are great examples of groups enabling change, like the Coalition for Queens, which successfully re-skills individuals without a tech background to find work in technology. Initiatives like this are transformative because they create more than just a paycheck. They create meaning in people’s lives.
Other potential areas of involvement are ethics and crowd intelligence. Artificial intelligence is a machine tool which lacks human empathy, and its uses are proliferating exponentially. As a society, we will need to insert human value judgments in the work AI performs. We need those judgments to come from people involved in the trades that automation is disrupting, someone to teach the machines what is right and what is wrong.
QuoteWhen tools are built to empower advisers rather than to disrupt them, more people receive financial advice and more people are involved in the craft of delivering it.
Further, it has been shown that crowd-sourced results are often more accurate than expert predictions, especially when augmented by technology. Perhaps there are ways to marry human participation at scale with smart, self-sufficient systems that benefit everyone.
This is starting to happen today with digital wealth management, as human advisers begin to leverage massive automation and AI tools. When these tools are built to empower advisers rather than to disrupt them, more people receive financial advice and more people are involved in the craft of delivering it. I have learned this lesson in helping robo adviser software evolve into a commercial product.
In this divided time, it is challenging to compare the dangers of AI and the dangers of populism. But one is a reaction to the other. The U.S. presidential election result is a wake-up call to technologists and their investors that people matter not just as consumers and shareholders, but as employees seeking meaning and security in their lives.
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