Posts Tagged Work

The Intelligence Revolution (Part 2)

The Four Rs: Changing Jobs in a Changing World


The Intelligence Revolution will transform many aspects of our lives, but few as radically as work and employment.

By its very nature, progress is disruptive. Technological advances lead to the development of new markets and the withering away of old ones. They generate new laws and regulations. In the most extreme cases, they can even threaten our existence as a species. But of all of these changes, none touches us more personally and immediately than the those that affect our jobs.

Work puts a roof over our heads and food on our table. It makes it possible to provide for our family. If we’re fortunate, it contributes to our sense of purpose and identity.

But if change is disruptive, how much more upheaval will we see in coming years as the world undergoes accelerating change? The rate of technological advancement has been slowly increasing for many centuries, but only recently has it reached a point where we’re aware of it on practically a day-to-day basis. Every week, there are new breakthroughs and devices that will alter some aspect of our lives. This trend shows few signs of letting up. If anything, the increasing intelligence of our tools is only going to accelerate the rate of change further.

For generations, it was typical to perform the same trade as our parents and their parents before them and so on. In the middle of the 20th Century, many people worked for a single company throughout their entire career. By the end of the century, this had become far less common.

According to a longitudinal survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in 2008, younger baby boomers held an average of 10.8 jobs between the ages of 18 and 42. (The Bureau doesn’t define or track career changes, contrary to a commonly quoted statistic about its frequency. Nevertheless, a general trend can still be extrapolated from the jobs numbers.) If much of this shift in job security is due to technological progress and the rate of that progress continues to accelerate, what will it mean for all workers and the society they support in the years ahead?

In the face of such change, we have little choice but to adapt. Attempting to hold on to older, less efficient work methods has failed since before the Luddites tried to sabotage mechanized looms in the early 1800s. The ability to produce more efficiently almost always results in increased productivity which lowers real prices. This is a difficult incentive to fight despite the upheaval it often brings.

Adapting to a rapidly changing world means shifting how we look at careers, identity and education. More and more, it’s going to become necessary to re-invent ourselves, matching our strengths and skill sets to the changing marketplace. With this new path identified, we’ll need to re-educate ourselves to prepare for work in new and changing fields. Over time, we’ll rebuild our careers, combining prior experience with our more recently acquired skills. Then, as technology and the fields it creates and supports continue to advance, the cycle will repeat and it will be necessary to do it all over again.

For many of us, adopting these Four Rs will feel very foreign, even threatening. Embracing change is not typically in our nature. But adapting to it is. The world we live and work in is being transformed whether we want it or not. As with all sea changes, we have a choice. We can swim with the tide or be overwhelmed by it.

Affordable higher education that continues throughout our lifetimes will be essential to making this possible. Likewise, regular career counseling. These will be necessary if we’re to maintain a work force that can support the many high tech fields that are sure to arise in the coming decades. The health of our entire economy depends on the right approach.

Progress is accelerating, changing the world before our eyes. It will bring many challenges, but with it many opportunities as well. To thrive in this rapidly changing world, we’ll need to recognize that our working lives will be changing as rapidly as everything else. The Four Rs may be one way we can adapt to an accelerating future.

    Re-Invent.
    Re-Educate.
    Re-Build.
    Repeat.

The Intelligence Revolution (Part 1)

In the intelligent future, positions, roles, entire fields will disappear from the jobs market. In many cases, the tasks themselves will still exist but increasingly they’ll be done by evermore intelligent technologies instead of by humans. As in the past, these changes will be motivated by market forces and the ongoing incentive to improve efficiency and productivity. And like the Digital Revolution and the Industrial Revolution before it, the Intelligence Revolution will transform the jobs landscape for still another reason. Because it will lead to increasingly rapid innovation and product creation.

In the past, machines have eliminated jobs because they could be designed to be faster, stronger and more tireless than their flesh and blood counterparts. During the Industrial Revolution, this meant lower skilled, often highly-repetitive labor was displaced. Spinning, weaving and sewing machines transformed the work environment. Vast numbers of trades people saw their work taken away by what would eventually become a worldwide clothing industry. Which would itself one day create millions of jobs. Likewise, unskilled manual labor. Before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roads and railways were built on the backs of thousands of workers. Today with the aid of machines, dozens can do the work previously performed by hundreds, if not thousands. These technologies (along with many others that came after them) built the cities, highways and factories that led to still more jobs.

The Digital Revolution had similar impacts. Office functions have seen such increases in efficiency that a single person can perform the work once performed by many. At the same time, that worker has seen a huge increase in available skills and technologies. These changes also took away a lot of jobs but led to the creation of many new ones as well. Desktop publishing, digital photography and digital video production utterly transformed their fields. At the same time these new technologies eliminated jobs, they put the ability to create mass media into the hands of an unprecedented number of people.

This antenna was created for a NASA communication satellite using evolutionary algorithms.  It was designed to be efficient, not pretty.
This antenna was created for a NASA communication satellite using evolutionary algorithms. It was designed to be efficient, not pretty.

But I suspect these examples will pale beside the changes that will be brought about by the Intelligence Revolution. Two fields that are poised to transform entire industries are those of automated invention and rapid prototyping. Using techniques such as genetic programming (algorithms that utilize fitness selection), computers are increasingly able to invent devices that are far more efficient than anything that could be created by a person. For instance, Evolutionary Antenna Synthesis is leading to better, more cost-effectively designed antennas. In another field, evolvable hardware has improved microprocessor design, creating circuits that are far denser, increasingly complex and fault-tolerant than anything that could be created by a team of unaided humans.

As they develop, 3-D printer rapid-prototyping technologies will allow us to implement these inventions and designs far faster than we ever could before. The creation of open source rapid-prototypers, such as the RepRap and MakerBot projects, will make these technologies widely available, leading to a democratization of this process as well. 3-D designs for these machines are already widely shared and distributed via the internet and the concept will likely lead to downward price pressure as these technologies become increasingly sophisticated.

All of this is leading to a sea change for job markets and how we approach our careers and education. As always, such change will have consequences both good and bad. I’ll elaborate on this further in Part 2 of this series.