The societal effects of cognitive technologies
In Malaysia, Uber is easily available. It’s inexpensive, safe, and a great experience all around. Unfortunately, taxi drivers there don’t take kindly to Uber drivers — a few yelled at one of the cars I was in while visiting last week, and one slammed his fist into the window by my head as we drove past. You might say their rage at this technology-driven change is palpable.
Okay, now magnify the situation many times over: what happens, societally, when a significant portion of our existing jobs just evaporate in the space of a few years — enough to take unemployment in the US from 5% to 12% in less than a decade? Keep in mind the unemployment rate peaked at 10% in 2009 after the global financial crisis, and could easily be right back up there in just a few years. According to a recent Forrester Report, this is what we’re facing due to increased automation and “cognitive technologies.”
In fact it’s sort of worse than just going from 5% to 12% unemployment. According to Forrester’s projections, 9% of jobs in 2025 will be new ones enabled by automation, which is great — but 16% of existing jobs will have vanished forever. It’s not difficult to imagine that this might create a lot of economic and social dislocation along the way. All the displaced taxi drivers, truck drivers, customer service personnel, store clerks, fast food servers, and others will have to do something to keep themselves and their families going, and telling them to go back to their local community college is really not going to cut it. As Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union put it, that advice is “probably five to ten years too late.” He goes on to say that as a society “we don’t really have a plan and we don’t appreciate how quickly the future is arriving.”
There is a saying often attributed to Winston Churchill that “Americans can be counted on to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” It seems that right now we’re still madly trying “everything else.” Jobs already lost or that will be lost to automation and globalization are not going to be magically brought back by “building a wall” on our border with Mexico, nor by instituting draconian protectionist measures or anything other backward-looking solution. We have to look forward to try to figure out what a radically different future actually means for us as a society. Until we decide to do so — until we finally decide to knuckle down and do the right thing — it’s going to be a difficult, bumpy time for a whole lot of folks. What’s coming at us now is going to make 2009, and maybe even the 1930s, look easy. The question, as posed by Stern, is “what level of pain do people have to experience and what level of social unrest has to be created before the government acts?”