The Age of Automation

| by Cian O’Connor |

For most of mankind’s time on Earth we have lived a simple life. There were only 2 jobs: hunter or farmer. Over the course of many thousands of years tribes began to trade with each other, foreshadowing the dawn of civilization. In the 2.8 million years between the earliest known humans and the 1700s we had gone from savages to two distinct classes:

  • a rich aristocracy dominating trade/banking, academics/science, and religion.
  • A working class of poor powerless peasants and slaves working mostly on farming, mining, crafting, etc.

In the early 1700s this way of life was desecrated by the steam engine. Industry was born. The mechanization of work led to efficient chemical manufacturing and iron processing, the factory system, water power, and the replacement of hand labour with machines. Cities became nodes of economic growth as well as cultural centers. Enormous swathes of the population working in low value roles became redundant. This extraordinary leap in productivity utterly redefined society and it soon became hard to imagine life before.

Over the next few decades the people specialized: learning new skills, getting new jobs, working in ways that were never possible before. Value was created on a scale never seen before in history. The productive output of any individual increased so much that far fewer people were required in maintenance roles, such as farming or hunting, to sustain the human race. These people, now freed from the burden of dangerous, treacherous, unhygienic, and undesirable work began to use creativity and critical thinking to explore new avenues in which they could contribute. Slowly, a new model of civilization developed…

In the late 1800s, less than 2 centuries later, this way of life was desecrated by our mastery of electricity. Industry was never the same again. The efficient transport of power, mass transport via rail networks, and the development of mass production brought the cost of everything down. People prospered and their productivity reached new heights. We were enabled like never before. The first modern business magnates (think Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller) began to appear. Enormous swathes of the population working in low value roles became redundant. This extraordinary leap in productivity utterly redefined society and it soon became hard to imagine life before.

People had to adapt in new ways to the unnatural phenomena shaping the world economy. Mass production made the bulk of the unskilled working class unnecessary in factories across the First World. The war economy fueled a large portion of the early 1900s. Globalization made widespread international trade and world wars possible. It brought rampant plague and disease, and medical advances to meet them. Skills diversified. Healthcare, the arts, education, and white collar industries became standard career paths for the public. The knowledge economy began to take shape. People sought out education to explore new avenues in which they could contribute. Slowly, a new model of civilization developed…

In the mid 1900s, within the same lifetime, this way of life was desecrated by the computer. Industry was never the same again. This paragon of human ingenuity hardly needs an introduction — everyone is still aware of the biblical changes brought to industry and life by computers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine life before.

So are there any patterns to be extracted from these times of massive technological advancement? Firstly, each breakthrough allowed for the automation of more work that previously occupied people. As the overall quality of life improved, lower classes could spend their limited resources on education rather than subsistence to an increasing degree, thus enabling further contribution. This is easy to see. Television, music, publishing, art, photography, social media. So many people have been freed up to work on whatever they choose. Jobs have been lost, but the result is that people have more opportunity than any other time in history. There was a time not so long ago when people died from exhaustion working in factories. With more people educated and working in science, engineering, and technology the next breakthrough always comes a little quicker than the last.

So it is hard to sympathize with the fear-mongers who propagandize that now, in the early 2000s, our way of life is being desecrated by data networks! Social media is the catalyst for a new revolution. Data on everything, everywhere, and everyone is available freely online to everyone. The tools for processing this data have never been more abundant. Some people actually spend more time online than offline — the entire world is at their fingertips. Notions of “distance” and “identity” do not mean the same as they did 10 years ago. Targeted advertising has changed the nature of sales. The barriers to entry for almost every industry are staggeringly low. For the first time in history the challenge for new businesses is not raising capital to begin operation, it is breaking through the noise of all of the other new businesses. Most of the population work in jobs that did not exist when they were born. And this is only the beginning…

Even if Bitcoin dies, a dominant decentralized currency is going to emerge. Linking a currency to an arbitrary national border is a ridiculous constraint in an age when distance and geography are irrelevant. The underlying blockchain framework is being applied to countless other areas threatening to change everything, from capital markets to medicine to Uber. Technology companies are determined to reinvent finance, even if they have to reinvent financial regulation on the way.

Artificial intelligence, for the first time in history, is not a gimmick or a sci-fi cliche. It exists, it’s here, and it works. Novel marketing campaigns such as AlphaGo are putting AI in the back of consumers’ minds. There has been massive funding and community support for AI projects. A disproportionate amount of tech talent is working on R&D and the technology has been made open source with dozens of free online courses to get anyone started, making it one of the most technologically accessible fields of study ever. Slackbot is already a staple office tool. Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant are always with you. Amy emails your contacts and schedules your meetings for you. Any task you perform with clear steps can be automated. The beauty of modern AI is that it actually evolves with use. As people begin to adopt these products they will become so effective and intelligent in ways no developers could hope to emulate.

In the past the standard response to virtual reality has been “That’s kinda cool, I guess. A bit sci-fi though.” Today it is “Oh my God, this is amazing!” Who cares where in the world you are if you can chill with friends on your Oculus from 8,000 miles away. Or, for that matter, have meetings with executives across 5 continents simultaneously. In the world of business, week long road trips could become 20 minute exercises.

If the advertising industry thought social media was a revelation, augmented reality is going to blow them away.

Companies are automating every task done on a computer. When that is finished, there is a whole wave of IoT products are lining up to automate every physical task too. Everything, from putting the kettle on from your phone to crunching those spreadsheets you spent last week working on in half a second. Automation is coming in a major way.

Luckily, if the past is anything to go by, new jobs will be created, people will become more specialized, better educated, and have more access to everything the world has to offer. Distinct social classes will collapse as even the poorest people have access to everything they need. Equality will become more pervasive, and opportunity will be more abundant than ever.

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Cian O’ Connor is a business operations consultant and a graduate of University College Dublin. He likes to write about Technology, Culture, and advances that will impact humanity. You can connect with him here.

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Header Photo: Markus Spiske

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