Automation is the unavoidable future of the economy
We’re currently at 4.9 percent unemployment, and it’s only because machines are not smart or cheap enough to replace us.
The motto of entrepreneurship incubators is “disrupt your industry,” which really means “introduce technology to an established industry.” Uber decimated taxis and public transportation, Amazon Now brought two-hour delivery to large metropolitan areas and Google is advancing its machine learning algorithms along with its consumer AI.
So far, these services have managed to improve our quality of life without negative impacts to our economy. However, the systems, infrastructure and technology that power these services are still in their infancy. Our economy is about to experience a change as dramatic as the industrial revolution.
The economy has evolved before
Automation has been threatening to take our jobs since the cotton gin. And it has, but new, better jobs have come along. When agriculture was automated, our economy changed. No longer was it necessary to have 40 percent of our workforce performing manual labor.
This freed up the necessary workforce to allow the industrial revolution to take off and manufacturing jobs took over as the American employer.
The industrial revolution was also a technological revolution. It allowed automation to build cars, air conditioners, or any product significantly cheaper while requiring less human involvement.
The economy adjusted. As these middle-class manufacturing jobs left our economy, we attempted to adjust. However, our middle class has suffered and continues to be in decline.
How long before automation takes a more significant role in our economy and lives?
The current situation
Uber has become the ubiquitous transportation application. Since Uber’s pricing became competitive it’s garnered more customers, and its service has become significantly more convenient. What most don’t know is that Uber operates at a loss.
Every year, the company loses money but continues to be the most popular transportation app with no signs of slowing down. The long-term business plan isn’t eventually paying drivers less; it’s eventually not paying them at all.
Uber is banking on self-driving cars to become commercially available in the next few years. An entire fleet of cars that need no sleep, are constantly available and run on electricity.
Retail companies have made their logistical processes as automated and intelligent as possible. Amazon Now and Amazon GO are services that are recent, and both function to connect a costumer to a product as quickly and as easily as possible.
Amazon Now is a two-hour delivery service, and it’s amazing. You can order 80 percent of your grocery needs, an Xbox controller and batteries and have them delivered to your door two hours later.
Amazon’s logistics process is the most advanced in the world, meaning that it’s the most automated. Amazon GO is a brick-and-mortar store that doesn’t need cashiers. When a customer walks in, they scan their phone, grab the food they want and walk out.
Depending on their logistics process, Amazon might even have machines stocking the shelves as well.
The future of automation
Machine learning is the software side of automation. Google has been working on a project called Deepmind. This software learns any task by running billions of simulations, adjusting the variables it’s allowed, and without instructions, quickly learning the most effective ways to accomplish its goal.
This process allows it to approach problems in ways humans would never think of. It’s most recent accomplishment is winning a game of GO, against the best player in the world. A step above Chess (as it’s believed you need a sense of intuition to win).
These systems can be taught to program, write papers and design complex structures, as well as take restaurant orders, provide better automated customer service, do research and design better versions of themselves.
Machine learning software can learn to write news articles by reading millions of reports to understand human writing patterns. It will be able to quickly draft summaries for press conferences and speeches. Bias can even be programmed in.
Innovation and automation are an unavoidable future. Profit drives innovation, and no matter what the effect it has on the middle class, companies will not stop automating processes.
Our politicians are concerned with coal and manufacturing jobs that are already obsolete and fail to see the future that’s looming.
Our economy is not prepared for a future in which the unemployment rate is constantly high or a people no longer need to work 40-hour weeks. Companies will continue to reduce overhead by cutting away the inefficient, prone to error fat that hinders profits.
Since machines run pretty lean, the only fat I see is us.
Hugo Salinas is a MIS senior and a regular contributor to Cooglife magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]