What Happens When a Robot Does Your Job Better Than You?

Artificial Intelligence is something that I’ve been fascinated with recently.

AI clearly has the potential to revolutionize business and the economy. Many argue the revolution is already underway.

As I understand it, AI basically means a program’s ability to “learn.” If it can learn, then it can improve. And over time it can find quicker, more efficient and cheaper ways to complete tasks.

A machine can be programmed to learn more quickly and efficiently than a person.

Obviously low-end workers like cashiers, janitors, truck drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery people will be put out of work by the combination of robotics and AI soon.

Even if they don’t put all of them out of work, we’re clearly looking at 100,000s or millions of jobs lost.

When I go to my local CVS store here in New York, I use a self-check out machine. This seems completely banal at this point, but just a few years ago there would have been at least 3 or 4 cashiers doing this job. Now those people are gone, replaced by one shift leader to greet and help customers with occasional problems.

But the other interesting or frightening prospect (depending on your point of view) is the automation of higher-skilled, white collar work.

From data analysis and sales, to journalism and accounting, to even medicine and surgery, all are threatened by robotics and AI.

So what do we do when machines can do our job better than us?

I think two things.

First, we will have to put robots to work for us.

This means creating new businesses and products/ services that may be impossible for us to deliver on our own, but are feasible with automated help.

I’m sure you can think of tasks and functions that are complex and take a lot of time and effort, that would be made much easier and quicker with a very intelligent computer sidekick.

On top of that you can devise new tasks that will seize opportunities and profit potential, that are currently impossible to perform with your limited hours and budget.

In this sense, the AI revolution will level the playing field massively for small businesses and entrepreneurs, just as the internet did about 20 years ago.

AI and robotics will enable individuals to create and deliver value in ways that are currently only available to multinational corporations or companies with 100s of employees.

And second, we will have to think radically differently about our value

This one is more challenging.

My value as a human being (in the working sense) will no longer be about my learned skills or even my specialized experience. Skills can be programmed and years of experience and learning can be uploaded into a machine in a few seconds.

It won’t be long before almost all complex physical tasks will be automated. Robotics technology is rapidly advancing.

So what is it that really makes me different?

Human economic value will be in the realm of ideas, feelings and imagination, not physical labor (even complex labor), and not complex analytical work.

Perhaps we will have a renaissance in art and philosophy.

Just as wealthy nobles centuries ago spent their time on music, travel, philosophical debates, and religious study, because they had slaves and servants to complete every physical task they could possibly need, perhaps we will return to a similar world.

Except this time, the slaves and servants will be our robots and learning algorithms.

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