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Will Technology Put Us All Out Of A Job?

The shift that we are seeing today is extremely short term. The newspapers are struggling because they operate without the efficiency of the new world - just like old businesses could not compete with the industrialized businesses in the 1800s.

Written by on June 21, 2012

This question emerges frequently in my stream, especially during times like these where a lot of people are out of a job. We can all see the trends. In the media world automated news aggregators, which can be managed and developed by a handful of people, are replacing the media's role as 'the bringer of news' - and suddenly hundreds of journalists are out of a job.

That's sad, because while I advocate new media, I really like the publishing industry. I once worked for a small printing press, long before days of digital, and I still think those days as 'magical'. I love the idea that first you had to submerge a metallic plate into a chemical bath to create the print plates. Then you had to use a special marker to fix imperfections, by hand, only to load the print plate into this big cast-iron press, apply the ink manually to the rollers, after carefully mixing it by hand. And then the magic happened ...a piece of paper came out looking odd, because it was only the first of many colors.

All this has been replaced by this - me typing on a wireless keyboard directly into my CMS system and clicking a button. Technology, the internet and, more so, the direct connection has completely eliminated print.

And now, with the new Retina displays in both mobiles, tablets and laptops, the quality of digital exceeds the quality of news print -- and it matches the quality of high-end magazine print.

There simply isn't any reason any longer to print something. At best, you get the same output (a magazine you can hold in your hands and flip through), but with print it just takes a lot longer, requires far more people to do and costs many times more to produce.

It doesn't matter what people think. It's simply a question of efficiency, convenience, and economics. If we look back, I cannot find a single industry that had stayed in the past when a faster, more convenient, and cheaper option was available. In fact, I can name several industries that have disappeared completely because they where no longer needed.

My great-great grandfather, for instance, had a spectacular job. He was a bowling pin raiser. Yep, he was working in a bowling ball alley before all those new fangled machines that exist today. Every time someone knocked down those pins, his job was to put them back up again so that people could continue playing. Isn't that amazing?

My grandmother was a telephone switchboard operator. Her job was to sit in one of those telephone centrals and manually move wires from one slot to another to connect people to whomever they wanted to talk with. Imagine that. In order to call someone, a person was employed to manually move a physical wire from one place to another. She was a professional connecter!

Note: There is a funny story about the invention of the automatic switch board. It was invented by Almon Strowger, because he believed the operators where routing calls to one of his competitors - who also happened to be the husband of one of the operators.

A long time ago, my very first job was as an intern for a fashion company (I wanted to become a fashion designer). This company employed about 60 people. There where 2 sales people, 2 designers, 4 administrative staff, 3 technicians, a janitor, and about 50 seamstresses. During the time I was there, those 50 seamstresses lost their job, because the production was outsourced to Poland (and later China).

The people in Poland could do the same job, at a higher quality, with fewer resources, and much, much cheaper. A company with 60 employees could now be run using only eight - and still make the same product.

In 2004, I was in charge of a project that had to optimize the use of media files in the company I was working for. Before, every single time anyone had to do anything with any media file, they had to get a graphic designer to do it for them. Even a simple thing as resizing an image so that the sales manager could attach it to an email.

We changed all that by creating a fully automated media management system that anyone could use directly. Before, when you wanted to post a campaign to the press center, it involved several days of work. Now, it took 3 seconds because all you needed to do was to push one button.

One day, the graphic designers called a meeting, and they told me "if your project is a success, we will be out of a job!" ...that was an awkward day.

I told them, "No, I'm not. You are all overworked, so I'm helping you by taking away all boring work so you can focus on what you like to do the most - and what you do best." And, I actually believed that at the time.

But as the system became more and more advanced, it also became clear that we no longer needed the same amount of graphic designers. In 2002, before the project started, the company had 7 graphic designers and 2 brands. In 2009, we had 4 brands but only 3 graphic designers. And in 2010, one of the graphic designers was laid off to save cost.

It's a bit weird to think off. The media system was definitely a success and saved the company millions in cost every year, but it was also partly responsible for several people loosing their jobs.

The common element in all these example is that once another solution has emerged, one that is either faster, more convenient, or cheaper (or all of them), the old way of doing things becomes obsolete. And the people working in those fields lose their jobs.

If a business or an industry tries to prevent it, they become obsolete as well and lose their entire business. Just look at Kodak or Blockbuster.

And it doesn't stop here. The world is constantly trying to find better, faster, more convenient and cheaper ways to do something. One example is text-to-speech.

Next-gen: Text-to-speech

Text-to-speech, i.e. the ability for a computer to read aloud written text, has been around for a very long time, and it has never been much good. There have been some improvement but at a very slow pace. The reason is that the only people who needed this technology where people with disabilities, and that specific group of people have historically never been that important for business.

But now, Amazon has build text-to-speech into the Kindle, and Apple's Siri use it all the time. Suddenly we have a mass market need to fix this and make text-to-speech a truly remarkable technology. Within the next 10-15 years, text to speech will evolve from the rather crappy speech it is today, and evolve into a computerized speech indistinguishable from real human reading.

The result will of course be a new set of remarkable technologies and services, but at the cost of all the people who are manually reading things aloud today. Voice actors, who take a long time reading each word manually, at a high cost, will be replaced by automatic systems that can turn an ebook into an audiobook in mere seconds.

Suddenly, publishing an audiobook will only require you to push a button, and many books will be converted on demand.

And what about the people who do voice over in commercials, documentaries, and on TV? They too will be replaced by a computer that simply reads it automatically.

But the real trick is in games. Today, gaming companies spend a huge amount money and time hiring voice actors to act out the dialog that you hear when you are playing a game. It is a slow and meticulous process, and it drastically limits what you can do. You are basically confining your 'action' to whatever dialog that you have prerecorded. In games, where there are many similar situations, you often hear the same dialog over and over again, simply because they didn't have the money and the time to record enough voices.

Automated text-to-speech will solve that. All you do is to license the number of voices you need, and then you can add a semi form of artificial intelligence that can literally create whatever dialog you can imagine - on the fly.

All this will happen within the next 10-15 years. The result will be indistinguishable from real human voice acting, and in the process eliminate the manual voice acting industry.

The reason it hasn't taken off yet is simply because these companies haven't realized the opportunities (or the cost savings). And there is a technical hurdle to overcome.

Text-to-speech today sounds like crap because it is based on sound snippets recorded using a monochrome voice (for the greatest amount of flexibility). The result is a very computerized voice that is completely devoid of feeling and emotions - in short, everything that makes it human.

But just as the early days of 3D where merely 2D objects stitched together. 3D today is now rendered on the fly. The same will happen with text-to-speech. It will not be based on stitched together soundbites. It will be fully-rendered speech, which means it can be made to sound like any person, full of emotions, dialects, inflections, etc.

The Food replicator

Last year, in The Future of News And The Replicators, I wrote about what would happen to the food industry once we develop the food replicator. Imagine a world where we can 'print' food, just like we can print 3D objects today. Every farmer would suddenly be out of a job, as well as most of the transportation industry, and the grocery stores.

Not to mention 3D printing itself. Look at all the shops today that exists merely to move one physical object from one place to another.

No jobs in the future?

With all these examples, it is easy to say that technology is bad and if we don't do something we will all be replaced by some automated system that will do everything for us. Journalists, for instance, fear the new advances in automated reporting and data based publishing.

But will that actually happen?

One argument is that we only have to look at the unemployment rate. The graph below, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, certainly shows a much higher unemployment rate today, and a trend curve pointing to that more and more people will be out of a job (55% higher today than in 1948).

There are, however, two factors we have to consider when looking at this graph. One is that we have also seen a 78% increase in salaries, causing the cost of doing business to increase, and thus putting an added pressure on businesses to do the same work with less people.

The other factor is even more profound. From 1948 and until today, the population of the USA has doubled. With twice as many people, all requiring a job, it's remarkable that the unemployment rate isn't higher. On top of this, the worker productivity rate has dropped as well. In the first quarter of 2012 alone, productivity dropped 0.9%.

Would there be more jobs if we still needed people to place bowling pins and manually move wires every time we wanted to make a phone call? Sure, but only if we also accepted a lower salary.

Technology is not what's causing unemployment. What's causing it is drastically more people demanding bigger pay-checks, and working less. Businesses simply cannot afford it, so they turn to technology to keep the cost at a profitable level.

Of course, people then argue that they have to earn more money, because the products we buy are more expensive every year, which is true. But that is the vicious cycle we are in. Cost goes up, companies increase their prices and lays off people. This results in more expensive goods that cause people to demand higher salaries, causing the cost to go up, causing companies to increase their prices again, and fire even more people.

And this is where the other argument comes into play. The argument is that, without our advances in technology, this vicious cycle would run amok. Without technology, companies would not be capable of cutting cost of manufacturing, and as such would have to increase the price of their products even more. And the numbers certainly supports that theory.

Without the advances in technology, our increase in population, salary growth, and productivity decrease, would simply not be sustainable.

But there is also another factor at play. Technology is allowing us to expand the scope of what each one of us can engage with. This is nothing new. Before the industrial age, people bought few products at a low rate. You didn't buy new clothes, shoes, apps, or games every other week. But the industrial revolution completely changed that. After the industrial revolution, the number of different products people sold and the frequency at which they bought them at, exploded.

And this is exactly what is happening again with the connected world. In the past, people purchased one or two newspapers. Now people use even more money, on a much greater variety of content and at a much higher frequency than ever before.

This fundamentally changes how we do business and causes an explosion in new opportunities and jobs. While the industrial revolution put a lot of people out of a job, this expansion of the market into many new fields caused the unemployment numbers to stay largely the same - even as the population numbers doubled.

The shift that we are seeing today is extremely short term. The newspapers are struggling because they operate without the efficiency of the new world - just like old businesses could not compete with the industrialized businesses in the 1800s.

It causes a lot of jobs to disappear, and entire industries are becoming obsolete. But in the long term, the trends that we see today will cause a new explosion in new industries, new services, and new products.

But the biggest trend of them all is that we are removing the middlemen. We removed the people who manually placed bowling pins, and we removed the people who manually connected our phones.

As we become ever more efficient, in a directly connected world, we will shift towards a world of creators buying and selling directly from each other.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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