A perfect technological storm: the awesome threat you won’t hear about in America’s presidential campaign.
For a huge number of Americans the key emotion driving the tortured primary campaigns has, arguably, been fear.
It’s fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants; but above all, it’s a fear—panic for some—of Americans whose standard of living has declined or stagnated, and who apprehend an even bleaker future for their children.
But the candidates—and most of the media—are ignoring the real cause of that angst.
We are, in fact swept up in a vast technological tsunami. It’s a tsunami bearing challenges as great as anything our species has ever known.
It has already swept away millions of jobs and will wipe out tens of millions more. It will totally transform the economic landscape, and—like climate change—could conceivably threaten our very existence.
But, if you tune in to the cacophony that currently passes for political debate in the U.S. –and much of Europe—you hear precious little about that massive, relentless threat.
Instead, there are tirades against immigrants, against supposedly disastrous international trade deals and ruthless businessmen who close domestic factories to exploit labor in sweatshops abroad; against a political and economic system crafted to make the top .1 % even more obscenely rich.
There is some truth to all these charges, but the fact is that the real culprit—the underlying tectonic force transforming everything– is something else: It’s technology unleashed as never before.
It has been labeled the Second Machine Age, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and has long been the stuff of science fiction. But its impact is no longer a distant menace.
A study by Citibank and researchers from Oxford University released last January, concluded that 47% of jobs in America are at risk of being replaced by robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), while across the OECD an average of 57% of jobs are threatened. In China, the menace soars to 77%.
That onrushing maelstrom is the product of what we could call ‘a perfect technological storm.’ It’s been unleashed by recent astounding increases in computing power, magnified by startling advances in ability to store, retrieve, analyze and transmit data, and reinforced—almost daily it seems—by stunning breakthroughs in fields like AI, robotics, nanotechnology, metallurgy, microbiology, and 3D printing.
There are those who step in at this point to reassure us there’s no need for panic: From the first days of the industrial revolution, technological change has always been feared and fought; yet the innovations have always wound up creating far more jobs than they destroyed. Mankind has only prospered.
Thus, the argument goes, though huge numbers of jobs will be eliminated by AI and robots, in the long-run many more new jobs– entirely new professions and industries–will be created, dispensing products and services we can’t even fathom today.
But the fact is that the current perfect storm of technology—doubling the rate of progress every decade—is unlike anything we’ve ever known before, and is now approaching warp speed.
According to futurists like Ray Kurzweil, just in the twenty-first century alone “we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress—(when measured by today’s rate of progress) –or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century.”
The World Economic Forum recently released a report concluding that the rise of robots will lead to a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020.
The BBC has posted an interactive site that allows you to check just how likely it is that your own job will be wiped out in the next fifteen years.
Some jobs surprisingly most at risk are bank loan officers (98% likely to be eliminated), paralegals and legal aids (94%), retail sales people (92%), Taxi Drivers and chauffeurs (89%). In fact, completely driverless cars are already being tested on California highways.
Also high on the list are fast-food cooks and bar tenders (77%), security guards (75%), even personal financial advisors (58%).
Airline pilots and flight engineers have a 25% risk. But already, with automation, it is estimated the average pilot actually controls the plane himself for only 3 to 7 minutes per flight.
For the time being, human reporters and writers might appear to still have a future. Yet, even now it depends what kind of reporter you’re talking about. Thousands of company earnings reports and detailed accounts of sporting events are already being entirely written by AI-equipped robots.
There is even an automated service that daily scans and analyzes mammoth amounts of media from mainline publications to the most obscure newsletters and blogs, and then alerts investigative journalists and their editors to what may be potentially bombshell reports.
Donald Trump darkly threatens a trade war with China, as payback for its rapacious trade practices and sweatshop wages. But the fact is that many manufacturing jobs supposedly lost to China were wiped out because of technological advances in the U.S. itself, and will never be regained.
Ironically, it is China that has already become the largest market in the world for robots, threatening millions of its own factory workers. One stunning example is Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm that makes iPhones and has more than a million employees in China. Both they and Apple have been criticized for their low salaries and minimal working conditions. No longer. They now aim to have robots replacing 70% of their assembly-line work force within three years. Last year, their CEO boasted they already had a fully automated factory in the Chinese city of Chengdu that can run 24 hours a day with the lights off
Perhaps some of those displaced workers may wind up manufacturing robots themselves: China is also determined to become the globe’s major supplier of robots.
But developing new industries is not going to ward off the looming threat to human workers, neither in China nor the U.S. For example, a few months ago President Barack Obama proudly toured a sprawling new factory manufacturing lithium-ion batteries in Jacksonville, Florida. It was built with the help of a U.S. government fund designed to spur cutting-edge technologies.
New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin covering the visit remarked that Obama’s tour “included very little interaction with workers.
“Instead, he was shown machine after machine, mostly operated by computers. At one point, he was introduced to WALL-E, a robot named after the Pixar film that takes battery components from a tray. No employees necessary. This giant mecca of innovation, a physical marvel that if built several decades ago would have easily employed a few thousand people, employs only 300.
It was a scene that underscored a challenge facing the U.S. economy and one that may be the driving factor behind greater inequality: We’re not only losing jobs to overseas competition, we’re losing them to technology.”
And, that challenge is only accelerating.
As Moshe Vardi, a computer science at Rice University in Texas, puts it, “We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”
The point is–that question is already upon us.
But good luck if you expect to hear any serious discussion about it in the current U.S. election campaign. I mean, how can you tackle such colossal quandaries when you’re still battling over such mind-bending issues as whether or not to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border–or which bathroom trans genders should be permitted to use?