What happens when technology starts outperforming humans? We’ve long since relied on technology for transportation, for manufacturing, for banking. But what about construction, driving buses, customer service? What happens to the thousands of people that may soon lose their jobs to technology? These are the questions Andrew McAfee aims to answer through his TED talk.
People have been worried about an impending “age of technological unemployment” for decades. However, according to McAfee, this time, it’s a real threat – machines now have skills we never imagined they could develop. At first, this seems like great news. Hey, we’re producing more, faster, and for a lower price! We don’t have to do any of the menial labour, so we’re free to strive towards our full intellectual potential, right? Well, it isn’t that simple. As human labourers are replaced by machines, corporate profits skyrocket and wage payout goes down, hurting the middle class and propagating inequality. The number of labourers who are employed and vote, who are married and not in jail is dramatically decreasing. Meanwhile, college-educated people – doctors, lawyers, engineers – are continuing to hold full-time jobs, to vote, to stay out of prison. McAfee finishes his talk by describing his hope for the future – he believes that we, as a society, will not just accept these frightening trends. We will fight for equality through both political measures, like implementing a guaranteed minimum income, and educational ones, like integrating technology into the curriculum to engage students.
This talk wasn’t what I expected. I thought he’d be describing technological trends, talking about new jobs that would pop up as technology evolves – 3D printing specialists, human genetic engineers, e-textile designers, privacy consultants. I’ve always kept up with the latest advances in technology and I’ve always loved reading those clickbait articles about 20 New Gadgets We’ll Be Using In 30 Years, so I thought I’d enjoy this. While it wasn’t what I thought it would be, I still found it incredibly interesting.
I agree with most of the ideas McAfee presents in his talk. The dystopia we think of when we think of an upcoming “age of technology” is Terminator-esque – one where we’re enslaved by humanoid robots – when we really should be worried about a society with mass unemployment, a lack of family cohesiveness, and ever-increasing crime rates – a realistic, rapidly approaching possibility. Obviously, as labourers are replaced by machines, the unemployed will suffer from not only lack of financial support, but boredom and lack of stimulation. I think the importance of intellectual stimulation is often underrated and neglected when it comes to topics like these, and I’m glad McAfee addressed it.
One thing I disagree with is the solution he presented. Yes, of course, high-quality, engaging education is necessary. We want our education system to motivate students, to make them interested in what they’re learning about, and to push them to be the best they can. But this doesn’t seem to resolve the problem of job scarcity. Yes, it creates generations of hard-working, passionate, intelligent people, and of course, guaranteed minimum income would ensure that everyone can live comfortably, but none of this accounts for the human desire for mental stimulation. Improvement to education is a good start, but there is so much more that must be done.
Listening to this talk sparked a few questions. Is this issue currently being addressed by the government? What, if anything, is being done to combat it? Will any restrictions on the use of technology be put in place, or will the focus be placed on improving education and creating more jobs for humans?
I would highly recommend this talk to a friend. His discussion of the interplay between technological, economic, and social trends is fascinating and the presentation itself, with a multitude of pictures and graphs, is engaging. And most importantly, job scarcity due to technology, an ever-present threat, looms closer every day. It is an issue that must be addressed as soon as possible, so that we can prevent, or at least control, the immense negative impacts.