Technology Killed the Canary

Technology Killed the Canary

There are no more trial balloons, no more need to ask whether or when it is going to happen. Work as we know it and preparation for it has changed, and if we are going to survive as productive and meaningful participants in the new economy, we are going to need to change with it. A Guaranteed Basic Income is in our future.

The most significant change, as seen through the filters of different types of work—routine and non-routine; cognitive and manual—is the use of machines to do the majority of those routine and manual tasks formally done by humans. As technology advances and machines become more capable of more types of work, that leaves us in a challenging position, possibly unemployed.

The Deeper the Learning, the More Serious the Concern

In a recent article in the Boston Globe, “Robots Will Take Your Job,” Scott Santens discusses how work has evolved into those different categories and details the concerns over how advances in Artificial Intelligence and big data are enabling machines to do more complex tasks than ever before. The ability of machines to analyze millions of pieces of data to make decisions is a particular threat to our current notions of work and how we participate in the economy. “From flipping hamburgers to anesthesiology,” says Santens, “machines will be able to successfully perform such tasks and at lower costs than humans.”

Multiple Interpretations of the Impact of Technology

Santens sites statistics from the 2016 Economic Report of the President, published this February, to make a case for a Guaranteed Basic Income to protect those whose jobs may go the way of machines. The report interestingly enough covers a range of theories as to the impact of improved technology and the job market, including the idea that as machines become more capable of taking on tasks that humans do, humans actually end up having higher incomes, consuming more and access to more jobs. As the report says, “In other words, as workers have historically been displaced by technological innovations, they have moved into new jobs, often requiring more complex tasks or greater levels of independent judgment.”

Training People to Think

The impact of technology is real, it is present, and it is not going away. We are behind in cultural, political and economic ways of handling the evolving intelligence of machines.

How can schools, policy, and employers think about how to adapt as things evolve and fewer people are needed for jobs as we now know them?

One answer is to focus on how we teach people to think. Consider the value of a liberal arts education in which people develop these skills over time. Is this the way to go? Perhaps we can start earlier and integrate more analytical skills than information gathering activities into the curriculum.

The Knowledge Doubling Curve indicates that we are headed toward a situation in which human knowledge will double every 12 hours. That’s a lot of information to have access to, but the key point is that we no longer need to own the info. We should be using our brains for activities more important than retrieving information anyway. I’m okay with losing a game of Trivia to a robot, as long as it doesn’t take my job away.