Everyone has heard the old anecdote about the frog in a pot of water. If the temperature is raised slowly, the frog won’t react, eventually allowing itself to get boiled. That’s where we’re heading as a country when it comes to technological advances and the threat they pose to millions of jobs.
Seemingly every day there are new stories in the media about artificial intelligence, data and robotics — and the jobs they threaten in retail, transportation, carrier transport and even the legal profession. Yet no one is jumping out of the pot.
Let’s be clear: This is not science fiction. In just the past few days, there have been articles on Amazon’s automation ambitions, described by the New York Times as “putting traditional retail jobs in jeopardy,” and on the legal profession bracing for technology taking over some tasks once handled by lawyers. (Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post and founder and chief executive of Amazon.com.)
As reported in Recode, a new study by the research firm PwC found that nearly 4 out of 10 jobs in the United States could be “vulnerable to replacement by robots in the next fifteen years.” Many of those will be truckers, among the most common jobs in states across the country.
Yet when President Trump hosted truck drivers at the White House last week, he dedicated his remarks to the threat of health care without uttering a word about the advanced driverless semi fleets that will soon replace them. His Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shockingly said in an interview last week that we’re “50 to 100 years” away from artificial intelligence threatening jobs.
It’s easy for sensationalist headlines about A.I. to dominate, like those about Elon Musk’s warning that it poses an existential threat. Yet the attention of people such as Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking should be a signal to Trump and Mnuchin that A.I. and related robotics and automation are moving at a far faster clip than they are acknowledging. It should be on the administration’s radar screen, and they should be jumping out of the boiling water.
Solutions won’t come easy. Already some experts suggest a Universal Basic Income will be necessary to offset the job losses. We also have to transition our workforce. Educational institutions such as Miami-Dade College and Harvard University have introduced advanced programming courses that take students from zero to six programming languages on a fast track. More needs to be done. This should be the most innovative decade in human history, and it has to be if we’re going to avoid a Mad Max dystopia in favor of a Star Trek future.
Of course, there are those who say similar warnings were raised as technology revolutionized agriculture and other industries along the way. They might argue that then, as now, those advances led to more jobs. We would all welcome that and the potential these changes will represent for improving lives.
Technological advances could greatly reduce the cost of living, make housing more affordable and solve some of the biggest challenges whether in energy or long-term care, an issue painfully familiar to so many families. It may also help improve quality of life in the long term, as men and women gain greater flexibility to spend time with loved ones rather than dedicating 40 or more hours a week to working and so many others commuting.
In the near-term, however, the job losses that are possible could inflict tremendous economic pain. We are far from where we need to be. That will continue to be the case until policymakers, educators and innovators come together to address the reality before us. We won’t solve this overnight, but we can’t afford to wait until it’s too late.
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovation section.