May Day: Robots are coming for your job.

Yes, the title is sensational, but I really needed to get your attention.

Today is May 1st, known by many as “May Day”. With a long history, this day is known as a spring celebration, full of life and rebirth. Furthermore, it is also known as “International Workers’ Day” in recognition of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, where workers rioted for us to enjoy our now standard 8-hour workdays. Even though working conditions are not great for many around the world, collectively, most of us are better off than we would have been in the 1800s. And of course, it also evokes “mayday”, the international distress signal.

So I can think of no better day to discuss your job with you. Yes, you. Especially if you are a friend of mine, and especially if you work in manufacturing, service industry, transportation, clerical, middle management, or many other jobs I’m not thinking of right now, quite honestly. Right now, even the lowest of income groups in the US (and others, I’m sure) enjoy luxuries that their counterparts 100 years ago would have never dreamed of. And most of it is due to advances in technology.

Typing Robot
The age of this image should show you how long this research has been going on.

Make no mistake. There’s a good chance automation will replace your current job within the next 20 years. Even less for some of you. Think about that for a moment and plan it out. If you’re less than 20 years away from retirement, this is something you will have to deal with.

We are at both an exciting and terrifying time in history right now, from a technological perspective. We have so many pieces of the puzzle available to us. Right now, I have everything I would need to create a tabletop manufacturing-style robotic arm that could automate certain tasks. And I could do it with equipment that cost less than $500 (3d printer, soldering equipment, tools), and supplies costing less than $200 (plastic filament, hardware, motors, electronics). If I can do all of this for that cost, imagine what companies with much larger resources are planning right now. And they will. Not because they hate workers, but humans are messy and unreliable compared to software and automated systems. Sure, they’re motivated by money, and many even by greed, but it’s not malice. Nevertheless, make no mistake, it will happen anyway. Just think of all this talk of automated cars and the boons for human safety, but also the loss of many driving and transport-related jobs. Instead of being angry Luddites about it, let’s be productive.

Okay, now that I’ve convinced you (I hope), what can we do about it?

  1. Legislate. Bill Gates is proposing that we tax robots that replace human jobs, and I agree. Our economy is not prepared for this leap just yet. A tax would help pad the blow both in helping employ more people with new work, and it would slow the process of automating everything at once, so we have a chance to work things out.

  2. Prepare yourself and your families. If you think your job could be easily automated, this is imminent. You can no longer ignore this. Learn skills that are not easily automated now so you’ve got something to move to later on. Think about starting a business. Make options for yourself.

  3. Prepare your children. Make sure they’re developing skills that cannot be easily automated so they will have decent job prospects when they become adults.

  4. Talk to others. I don’t hear anyone talking about this except for a select few. However, this is something that will affect a lot of lives. Make sure those around you aren’t caught unaware.

Thanks for sticking with me through this post. I’m sure it seems incredulous or difficult to take, but I’m glad you’re thinking about it.

Additional reading:

Robots to replace 5 million jobs by 2020

AI and robots threaten to unleash mass unemployment, scientists warn

Elon Musk: “within 10 years it will be “unusual” for anything other than driverless cars to be manufactured”

Bill Gates and Elon Musk just warned us about the one thing politicians are too scared to talk about