The Job Problem

The global population is growing while jobs are shrinking. And there appears to be no magic bullet on the horizon.

Steam – Electricity – Communications – What’s next?

No one knows.

The emerging technologies – the ones we know about now – are all job thieves.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Nanotechnology, and Quantum Computing are job thieves one and all.

Even taken individually those new technologies all spell trouble for the average working person.

Do you know what 3-D printing is all about? It’s nothing compared to what’s going to happen in the near future when scientists and engineers are finally able to assemble products – any product – from individual atoms. And get this, it will be done using only the rawest of materials, many taken from just the air we breathe. That’s nanotechnology.

Take the construction industry for example. And then just a subset of that, the housing industry. That particular job sector is one of the key economic indexes by which the US government measures economic growth.

So what happens when buildings – even big buildings – are constructed like hives from nano-assemblers without people? Without what used to be the requisite tens of thousands of workers, welding steel, pounding nails and operating machinery?

You think I have just read a bunch of the latest science fiction? Oh no, my friend. Nanotechnology has been an ongoing discussion for a very long time. In fact I became aware of it as early as 1990 which was about the time I read K. Eric Drexler’s seminal book on the subject entitled Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, published a few short years earlier in 1986.

And I expect that AI coupled with quantum computing is going to be the final enabler of nanotechnology. And when these technologies finally mate the domino effect is going have a startling effect on the world we live in.

We all know that this earth is being greatly taxed by the enormity of the population of humans that inhabit it.

The availability of fresh water is a great concern in many parts of the world. The ocean’s fish are vanishing from over fishing. The MENA region imports in most cases at least half of its food because it can no longer feed itself.

And now the so called developed nations – that part of the world that poorer nations depend on for aid – is now at risk itself because the very means of production are requiring fewer humans to run it. And jobs in developed nations are going to increasingly become more scarce.

Do you remember that magnificent lie – circa the ’80s – that the oncoming computer revolution was going to liberate humanity and give us all more leisure time?

It didn’t quite play out that way did it? The new productivity tools resulted in the less skilled workers taking severe financial haircuts while skilled workers ended up doing their work and more.  (I’ll bet Microsoft Word more or less killed off 90% of all admin jobs. And heaven only knows how many other jobs fell to the rest of Microsoft Office.)

But productivity increased (the US regained its preeminent position of no.1) as the output per individual increased with the advent of these new tools. Jobs were lost but many people retrained as the computer ushered in the internet communications revolution which created millions of good paying IT jobs around the world.

But many of those new high paying IT jobs are disappearing both literally and figuratively into the cloud because as those server farms grow, the software to manage them has become more sophisticated, and once again only those highest skilled workers are left standing.

So – again – what’s the next act to follow the communications job explosion?

I for one don’t see one.

Let’s take a look at the present day job sectors: Banking and Finance, Education, Manufacturing, Transportation, Agriculture, Information, Government and Health Services.

With the exception of Health Services, I don’t see any of the rest adding good paying jobs (esp. in the quantity the economy is going to need) to float the next generation.

If anything I see every one of those sectors seeking to leverage technology to lower its workforce.

Let’s take a quick look at grocery store self-checkout. I am sure that many of the people still working the cash registers at the time the stores were first installing those things, viewed them as a novelty or maybe as a work-helper; meaning fewer people they’d have to service during the course of their workday.

But the reality was self-checkout turned quickly into job obsolescence. But that was only the first shoe to drop. With NFC and RFID (cheap wireless technologies) soon there will be no need  for checkout personnel at all. And coupled with robotics and machine self-driving there will be no need for humans to accept new products, do inventory or even stock shelves.

Your products will chirp (exchange product codes with a wireless device) upon exiting the store. The store will electronically debit your account. And the items you bought will be electronically refreshed with the suppliers. And machines will restock the shelves.

And that’s happening in certain consumer sectors today.

PS – William Gibson once famously stated, ‘The future is here now, it’s just not evenly distributed.’

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