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Ion's Blog
Thinking seriously about not-so-serious things | Searching for substance in a superficial world

The 4 new Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Automation, Algorithms, Auto-Manufacturing and Amazon

Bill Gates made some news recently when he called for a tax on Robots. This is a trendy idea these days, as everyone from Tech CEOs to French Presidential candidates are discussing ways to manage, if not mitigate, the seemingly inevitable impact of automation. Pick your pop culture reference - whether it’s going to be the Singularity (techno-utopia)  or Skynet (techno-dystopia), this is coming to a neighbourhood near you. As William Gibson puts it, “the future is already here; it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

In my view there are 4 horsemen of the (potential) Apocalypse: In addition to automation, algorithms, Amazon and soon auto-manufacturing (aka 3-D printing) are going to revolutionize the way we live and work in the coming years. Automation has already replaced bank tellers with ATMs and McDonald’s cashiers with self-serve kiosks; more fulsome robots are beginning to change the factory floor, too. Algorithms helped Netflix beat Blockbuster’s video clerk recommendations;; it won’t be long before they provide expert radiology diagnoses (see below). Amazon sadly killed the independent book store and the mom-and pop shop; with same-day delivery - by drone, no less! - coming to a city near you, why would anyone bother going to a mall, downtown or high street retail shop anymore? In the near future, all storefronts will be high concept “experiences” like the Apple store. You’ll go there to “showroom” the merchandise: you’ll test or try on the product and then order it from your phone app to be delivered later that day.

E-commerce is just an intermediate state, however; the next revolution will be auto-manufacturing. When every house has a MakerBot 3D printer (or equivalent), you won’t order a product so much as download its specs. Zappos won’t be selling shoes online, but rather the directions for your machine to make it at home. This will reshape the manufacturing and retail landscapes even further, as well as all those companies that exist as part of the e-commerce value chain. Is FedEx French Toast?

Maybe you think that if you don’t drive a Taxi (Uber), a truck (see Otto, the self-driving truck start -up) or work at Tim Horton’s (cashiers being replaced by scanners) you’ll be safe? Sorry. Software will do to white collar jobs what it did to blue collar ones. Algorithms are already affecting legal work and financial analysis the way TurboTax changed the accounting profession. Further up the income ladder, an estimated 30% of banking sector jobs will be lost to AI in the next five to 10 years, while financial advisors are losing ground to fintech start-ups like Wealthsimple. How about medical professionals? Surely they’re safe, right? Wrong. One doctor recently said that med schools should just stop graduating radiologists now - which understandably upset many working radiologists and med school profs.

Overall, Experts predict that automation by itself (not counting 3-D printing, algorithms or Amazon) will take over 30% of our jobs in the next 10 years. According to an Oxford study, around 50% of all jobs will be replaced by robots in the next 20 years.

Just to make you even more paranoid, some smart Silicon Valley types are betting that software will, in their argot, “eat the world”. Moore’s Law is no longer making computer chips twice as fast every year; it’s shifting to make computing twice as cheap in that time. What does this mean? Computing power is eventually and essentially going to be free as well as ubiquitous - a bit like WiFi is now. Pretty much any dinky start-up will be able to jack into the Cloud and use IBM supercomputer Watson to crunch their data and solve their problems.  

Now let me give one caveat: this is not a prediction. I do think this is a likely outcome though, mostly because there is such an array of forces moving in this direction. This is the hard truth: these 4 Horsemen may not bring the Apocalypse (and completely replace your job), but they will make sure the world needs far fewer of you and change the nature of what you do. You can be sure that anything in your job description that can be reduced to rules (boilerplate legal advice), pattern recognition (a doctor’s diagnosis) or data-driven decision making (your manager) will be.

Overall, they will soon kill all “average” tasks. Anything that you currently do that can be outsourced to software today (and robots and drones tomorrow) will be. This might take some drudgery out of your job (think filling out or reviewing expense claims), but it may also undermine its centrality to your company, too.  These 4 forces have the potential to alter, annihilate or augment your role in the value chain; We don't know which one yet.

One last data point to note: if you hope to “run out the clock” on these changes and retire before they happen, good luck. First, this is already beginning to happen. Second, our working careers are being extended today because of longer life expectancy. A child born today in the West can reasonably expect to live to be 100 (!). If you’re a 40 year old woman right now, you probably have 4 more decades in your working career - maybe 6 if we reach the Singularity in 2045.

The US Military has an acronym (VUCA) to describe the world we now live in. It stands for the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of a situation. Thanks to automation, algorithms, Amazon and soon auto-manufacturing, we are VUC-ed. So hang on tight - we are getting on a roller coaster ride that might last a half-century. But If Skynet emerges, we’re all screwed anyway …