Most predictions in this arena are dire, forecasting — to be blunt — a rather dystopian future.
Such visions include:
- AI monopolies that control the economy
- Vast swaths of unskilled people being unable to find work
- Vast gaps between haves and have-nots
Below, we’ll look at the good predictions, the bad, and the ugly.
We’ll see how automation feeds commoditization of skills, products, and services, and we’ll see how this impacts the digital economy, both positively and negatively.
Finally, we’ll look at how individuals’ own value systems impact their place in the economy … and how those values will help determine what kind of future we create for ourselves.
First, let’s look at the ugly.
Automation Will Accelerate Today’s Growing Wealth Gap
In the United States, the top 0.1% is worth as much as the bottom 90% … an income disparity not seen since the Great Depression.
According to one study, this wealth divide has grown very sharply over the past several decades.
For instance, the average wealth of the bottom 90% was at the same level in 1986 and 2012 — $80,000. The top 1%, however, more than tripled their household value in that same span of time.
Another study found that the richest 3 Americans — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos — have more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. That study also concluded that the wealth gap is continuing to accelerate.
In AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee says that AI will only add fuel to the fire, because it delivers insurmountable competitive advantages to those who have the most data.
Data, he says, is king — not the quality of the AI software or the intelligence of your AI engineers.
This brings us to an important point related to automation.
Automation Fuels Commoditization
by Ex-Googler Ryzsard Sopa echoed some of Lee’s ideas.
He reiterated that in AI, “better data will trump a better architecture.”
To demonstrate his point, he created a pair of neural networks, showing how “worse” AI models can outperform “better” ones if they have better data.
His article is entitled, “Your AI Skills Are Worth Less than You Think.” It’s geared towards AI startups, founders, and founder wannabes, but we’ll soon see that a side effect of automation is commoditization.
Google, he says, is deliberately commoditizing AI (building Lee’s “grid-based” AI), which makes AI skills less valuable:
Training a competent ML engineer requires plenty of time spent reading papers, and a solid math background to start with. However, as the tools get better, this won’t be the case anymore. It’ll become more about reading tutorials than scientific papers. If you don’t realize your advantage soon, a band of interns with a library may eat your lunch.
As mentioned, Sopa is speaking to AI startup founders, not the general public.
However, his article illustrates how automation can impact a particular industry. In this case, AI itself.
AI is just getting off the ground, as an industry, yet it’s already suffering from automation and commoditization.
To get a clearer picture of how automation affects jobs, let’s look at some examples.
Commoditization Is Nothing New, But It’s About to Get Worse
Automation and commoditization are nothing new.
Many people have pointed out that every technological or industrial revolution involves automation, transformation, and reorientation.
Let’s look at three examples of automation and commoditization in action:
1. WordPress and Web Development
WordPress and other free website builders make it easy for anyone to create a website … no web developer needed.
Did this destroy the web development industry?
Despite the fact that 25% of the web is built on WordPress, there is a sea of web developer jobs out there. Some of them pay extremely well.
The industry continues to evolve, of course. Today’s websites are very different from the websites of 20 years ago. The technology has grown more complex and tools like WordPress allow anyone to manage their own website.
But so far web development hasn’t been eliminated by these tools, and it isn’t likely to go extinct any time soon.
Commoditization has also hit creative disciplines, but for slightly different reasons.
Thanks to outsourcing, the gig economy, and online marketplaces, you can get any design asset you want on a shoestring budget, including:
- Graphic design templates
- Branding packages
- Stock videos and photos
- WordPress themes and website templates
This commoditization occurred thanks to the internet.
When a global talent pool was suddenly thrown into a digital marketplace, competition drove prices down.
Cheap overseas talent became readily available.
Sites like Envato created online catalogs of design assets, then started selling them for low prices or as part of subscription plans.
Many people complain about this type of commoditization, saying that it devalues their work. Though I agree to a certain extent, as I’ll show below, this commoditization goes hand-in-hand with another huge benefit that is almost always overlooked.
3. Farm Labor
A great deal of farm labor has been automated. Soon, the same may happen to factory labor.
In the United States, most of the human labor is done by immigrants.
Not because they’re “taking our jobs” … but because it’s back-breaking hard physical labor that Americans won’t do.
After all, it’s easier to work at a shoe store or sit at a desk than it is to pick tomatoes 10 hours a day underneath the boiling sun … for minimum wage … an uncertain work schedule … and no health benefits.
In the coming years, robotics will likely automate even more work that humans do today.
Some are optimistic about the effects of further agricultural automation, but others think this will have the same impact as AI on white collar jobs.
Namely, livelihoods will be destroyed.
A few people, though, believe that automation won’t be bad at all … that it may, in fact, usher us towards a better world.
The Bright Side of Automation
The consulting firm Mercer, for instance, acknowledges that automation is inevitable and that continued learning is an absolute must.
In one report, they claim that upskilling is about to “explode.”
According to their fourth annual Talent Trends report, upskilling has shot up from 10th to 4th place on the executive agenda.
Mercer acknowledges that the future of work will require new traits, such as:
- The ability to change at speed
- Permanent flexibility
- Augmenting human talent with digital technology
However, they don’t see a world filled with AI monopolies and out-of-work humans.
While they acknowledge that automation will likely make some jobs extinct, they also point out that there are other factors to consider.
For instance, in a future of self-driving cars it’s true that today’s taxi driver will be out of work. However, everyone will also be less likely to own cars — which will save each of us thousands of dollars a year annually.
In complete contrast to Kai-Fu Lee’s vision of a future where AI strips humans of meaningful work…
…wherein we must depend on the government for gainful, meaningful employment…
…Mercer’s Antonis Christidis claims that:
The future of employment looks bright with jobs that will be more meaningful, more intellectually stimulating and more humane.
According to Christidis, a “right” attitude is more important than the “right” technical skills.
How Employers Are Dealing with Employee Disengagement
The sad fact of the matter is that many employees don’t really like their jobs:
- 87% of workers are disengaged worldwide, according to Gallup
- 29% are fully engaged, according to Dale Carnegie
- 80% claim that on-the-job workplace opportunities would increase engagement, says Udemy
- Udemy also claims that disengaged workers are 2.5X more likely to quit
One of the most commonly promoted solutions to disengagement is career development, training, and upskilling programs.
Increasing career development opportunities will increase engagement, loyalty, longevity, and the ROI of that employee.
Given today’s rising demand for digital skills, it’s no wonder digitally savvy companies are investing in learning solutions such as:
- Digital Adoption Platforms
- Learning Management Software
- Learning Experience Platforms
And other digital learning solutions.
Employers certainly should cultivate a strong educational program, but there’s also another side to this coin…
Why I Think Employees Need to Take More Responsibility
Although the workplace itself has a big impact on employee engagement and attitudes, people make their own choices in life.
A workplace can and should engage and educate.
However, like Christidis said, having the “right” attitude towards the future is more important than having the right technical tools.
It’s an individual’s attitudes that define his or her:
- Station in life
Among many other things.
While an organization can create a better workplace and offer more learning pathways, it cannot control an individual’s attitude.
In a digital world overflowing with free and cheap educational options, it’s clear that everyone has a choice.
As author Ayodeji Awosika said:
Nobody put a gun to your head and told you to find a job that doesn’t pay you what you think you deserve.
No one is forcing you to be unhappy … Your circumstances are a reflection of your choices.
Being rather entrepreneurial in nature, I think workers should take more responsibility for their own careers … not to mention their attitudes.
How Individuals’ Attitudes Create their Own Futures
The internet has created a global marketplace for products and services.
But it’s too easy to focus on global competition instead of the ocean of opportunity right at your fingertips.
Employees, entrepreneurs, and small businesses can all lose sight of that opportunity … focusing instead on the downsides of global competition.
Let’s look at 3 examples of how attitude itself shapes people’s careers.
1. “Overseas competition has decreased rates for design services.”
If you’re a web developer or a designer, should you complain about the influx of global competition?
After all, they are driving down prices and commoditizing your industry … right?
On the one hand, you have more overseas competition.
But you also have more overseas customers.
It should also be clear that if you are a designer from the United States, for instance, you have significant advantages over many overseas competitors when shopping for local customers:
- Overseas competitors may not speak English well, or at all
- They may not have access to the same education you’ve had
- They may not have the same equipment you do
- And they aren’t local, which is a minus for many local customers
If, despite this, you still lose a contract to an overseas competitor, then maybe:
- You are chasing price shoppers instead of value shoppers
- The client was broke
- The overseas vendor did a better job impressing the client — in which case they deserve the contract
As mentioned, today’s marketplace is global.
That means that while there are new competitors, there are also new opportunities.
2. “YouTube de-monetizes videos that it doesn’t like.”
It baffles me that YouTubers can complain about YouTube yanking ad revenue.
After all, YouTube:
- Didn’t exist a few years ago
- Is completely free of charge
- Is a private company that can do what it wants
- Is offering you access to an audience of several billion people around the world
- And the ability to communicate, sell, or market to them … at no cost
Technically, YouTube doesn’t have to allow anyone on its platform.
In many cases, I’ve seen YouTube channels simply rely on Patreon or YouTube ad revenue for income — in spite of the fact that they could easily 10X their income with products and direct response marketing techniques.
3. “Content writers don’t get paid enough.”
Content writers often complain about the low prices of content writing.
But they forget that this is another marketplace didn’t exist a few years ago.
And that they can easily do what professional copywriters have been doing for decades … take on more responsibility, find better jobs, and hunt down higher-paying customers.
That is, they can “do marketing.”
Tomorrow, AI copywriting software may automate away 50% of the content marketing business.
When AI digs deeper into the copywriting industry than it already has, there will certainly be more complaints.
However, even post-automation, the online content marketing industry will still be larger than it was before the internet came around.
Namely, before the internet, digital content marketing didn’t exist at all.
Are We Missing Hidden Benefits of Automation?
While it’s likely that AI will take away many jobs, it will probably have other effects that aren’t being discussed and aren’t considered relevant … yet will have an equally powerful and important impact on our lives.
- Reduced human labor costs across retail supply chains could reduce product costs
- Self-driving cars could cut mass transportation costs, reduce the necessity of owning a car, open up shared vehicle ownership, and allow you to rent your car when you don’t need it
- Automation could remove many boring, repetitive tasks, while freeing up human time for more strategic, creative work
Companies that have successfully implemented RPA solutions, for instance, don’t cut their human workforce — they simply refocus those employees’ efforts.
Conclusion: AI Won’t Create a Digital Dystopia, Humans Will
No one knows for sure what the world will look like in a few decades.
However it turns out, I don’t think robots will be to blame.
I think the blame will fall squarely on our personal value systems. On our attitudes.
In the article cited above, Ayodeji Awosika related an interesting story.
It illustrates how attitudes define our career paths and our lives.
And, more importantly, why we should look at ourselves for the keys to the upcoming “AI new world order,” not robots:
I went to the mall and walked into a Footlocker. I expected of one the employees to come up and ask me if I needed help, but no one came.
Instead, I saw two staff members leaning on the front counter talking to each other.
They were talking about how they didn’t like working at a shoe store. How they didn’t get paid enough and how they wanted out.
I thought to myself, “Why would anyone pay you more? You’re not even doing a good job right now.”
Obviously this is just one example. It does not apply to everyone.
But it shows how many people tend to blame outside forces for their own career, such as:
- Their employer
- Overseas competition
In developed nations, these factors are far outweighed by our own freedom to make choices.
As Awosika goes on to say, “Your attitude about your work is a choice. The level of performance you give is a choice.”
In the coming years, the AI revolution will impact us all, whether we like it or not. And our choices may become much more limited, which is why employees and employers both should act now.
Some people aren’t even thinking about this automation revolution.
Or are simply burying their heads in the sand.
But the writing is on the wall:
- Study after study predicts widespread job automation
- Pessimistic predictions run rampant in the media
- Demand for both digital and soft skills is skyrocketing
Workers can choose to look ahead and upskill now … or just wait and hope for the best.