Ed Hess is a professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia and co-author of the new book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.”
American manufacturing job losses to China and Mexico were a major theme of the presidential campaign, and President Trump has followed up on his promise to pressure manufacturers to keep jobs here rather than send them abroad. Already, he has jawboned automakers Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler and heating and cooling manufacturer Carrier into keeping and creating jobs in the United States.
What he hasn't yet addressed — but should — is the looming technology tsunami that will hit the U.S. job market over the next five to 15 years and likely destroy tens of millions of jobs due to automation by artificial intelligence, 3-D manufacturing, advanced robotics and driverless vehicles — among other emerging technologies. The best research to date indicates that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are likely to be replaced by technology over the next 10 to 15 years, more than 80 million in all, according to the Bank of England.
Think back to the human misery in this country during the financial recession when unemployment hit 10 percent. Triple that. Or even quintuple it. We as a society and as individuals are not ready for anything like that. This upheaval has the potential of being as disruptive for us now as the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors.
Techno-optimists tell us to relax — don’t worry, technology will produce lots of new jobs just like it did during the Industrial Revolution. History will repeat itself, they say. Well, not so fast.
First, human disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution in Britain lasted 60 to 90 years, depending on the historical research. That is a long time for society to “right” itself, and lot of personal pain. Second, this time will be different because there will be new questions: Will technology produce lots of new jobs that advancing technology itself can’t do? And will displaced workers be able to keep up with the pace of advancing technologies?
These issues should be front and center on the president’s agenda. Planning for how our country will adapt to the coming technology tsunami must start now. We are talking about a major societal challenge — preservation of the American Dream — as well as the future of work in the United States and the world.
Jobs at risk include a diverse range of service and professional positions. Retail and fast-food jobs will be almost entirely automated. Manual laborers and construction workers will be replaced by robots; long-haul truck drivers by self-driving trucks; accountants, clerks, paralegals, telemarketers and customer-service reps by artificial intelligence; and security guards by robots and drones. Even professionals in the fields of accounting, law, finance, consulting, journalism and medicine are at risk of losing their jobs to smart machines.
What jobs will be secure? Well, that will change as technology advances. For now, the consensus is that humans will be needed to perform those tasks that require higher-order critical thinking, innovation, creativity, high emotional engagement with other humans and trade skills requiring real-time problem-solving and manual dexterity. Humans will need to excel at doing those things that are, for now, uniquely human. Good will no longer be good enough.
We need to begin planning for what is coming. Our political leaders need to embrace this challenge. We need an American Dream 2.0 Plan for how we, as a society, will remain the land of opportunity as technological advances cause massive job losses. The stresses upon our system and way of life will be huge. This is not science fiction.
I ask the president to appoint a diverse blue-ribbon committee to study and make recommendations about how we, as a nation, will prepare for the coming technology tsunami and answer the tough economic questions of our time: How will we keep the American Dream alive in the Smart Machine Age? How will people find meaning and purpose in a world where full-time work will be limited? How must our public education system be transformed to better prepare our children for this new world? How do we, as a society, deal with the fact that the future of work for many will be no work at all?
We need to begin preparing ourselves, our families and our nation by mastering those skills that technology cannot replace. We need to rethink human excellence for the Smart Machine Age.
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