All that is left is art
January 4, 2016
If you aren’t a creator, an artist, or an entertainer, eventually you will be replaced by a machine.
I’m sitting 30,000 feet above the gulf of Mexico in a metal tube travelling through the sky at 500 miles per hour.
As Louis C.K. the comedian said so famously, in a voice mocking an ungrateful passenger having to wait longer than usual on the tarmac,
“‘And then, we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway, for 40 minutes. We had to sit there.’ Oh? Really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?” He keeps going.
Did I mention I’m connected to the internet at this moment? Writing a blog. Going 500MPH, 30,000ft above the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s hard for most of us to imagine a life where the only option to get from New York to California took months of danger, risking life and limb.
If we can’t see where we’ve been, for many of us it’s hard to understand where this whole thing ends up. And where we end up, is a very important subject.
Hint, it doesn’t end with people “working”, at least not the way we do today.
A lesson from agriculture
In 1800, approximately 90 in every 100 US workers were involved in the production of food. They woke up, put on their work boots, and harvested plants and animals to keep everyone alive and happy.
Agriculture, as a means to produce food, began approximately 11,500 years ago. In the roughly 11,300 years between the invention of agriculture to the year 1800, 90% of human labour efforts was still devoted to growing food. And that figure comes from the USA in 1800, one of the most advanced countries in the world. Not a lot of progress in roughly 11,200 years changing what most people did as their occupation.
Today, less than 3 in 100 workers grow the food many us enjoy.
In the past 215+ years, technology has destroyed 87 out of every 100 agriculture jobs–at least destroyed from the viewpoint of the luddite.
How remarkable. In 215 years, those 87 out of 100 people were able to find other things to do other than produce food. They pursue professions like becoming mechanics, industrialists, factory workers, doctors, architects, and inventors.
Today we feed far more people with one acre of land than at any time in human history, all with fewer human workers than before.
It is truly amazing how quickly this has occurred.
You think a self-driving Tesla is cool? Can you imagine self-driving tractors, cultivators, and harvesters? Self-watering irrigation systems precise to the drop? Drones automatically surveying fields for disease? Drones automatically spraying for weeds, bugs, or malnutrition? Self-driving feeding vehicles providing hay to cattle? Big data providing prescriptions for the right cocktail of fertilisers and disease fighting agents just-in-time, to the area of the fields that require the treatment, or the animal that is sick?
I have no doubt everything above is already in the works or exists today. Once adopted, it will put many of the remaining agricultural workers out of a job.
So where do we go from here?
What is the logical conclusion?
The logical conclusion is that someday (probably soon), the farm will be nearly 100% automated. Nearly 100%? Are you sceptical? You don’t believe me? You think maybe 98% or 99%? Some person will always be required to make the “tough decisions”, right?
Believe me, if IBM Watson can diagnose disease more precisely in certain areas than real-life doctors, today, then a farm will become 100% automated tomorrow–or nearly tomorrow in the scope of human history.
It will happen. It is happening. In relative terms to 1800, it has already happened.
The trusty family farmer, whom I personally respect as much as any profession in the world, will either have to choose to go out of business, own the farm and the fruits of automation, or chose an alternative. More on that later.
What does farming have to do with anything?
The automation efforts and fundamentals that are transforming agriculture are the same principles changing your work.
If you are an accountant, banker, doctor, computer programmer (by the way, this is my background), sales rep, clerical worker, payroll processor, fast food cashier, grocer, fast food fry cook…and I could go on and on, I can promise you one thing: someday–sooner than you think–your job will be automated.
Software is eating the world. But more importantly, software is eating your future job.
With the advent of big data, but more specifically deep learning and neural network-based software design, software and machines will solve problems you can’t even imagine were solvable.
Computers are already solving problems that we thought unsolvable just a few years ago.
For example, did you know that 2015 is the year that 3 big software companies accomplished the absurd? They produced neural networks that can accomplish image recognition better than you or I can. A machine, for the first time in human history, is now better at recognising people than people are.
Sensors are everywhere. In our phones, in security cameras, bluetooth beacons, toys, stop lights, drones–all gathering data that can be processed by a machine that in a few short years will be more powerful than all human brains on the planet, combined!
As more people are displaced by software and machines, more people will be involved in training the next generation of computers.
In one of the greatest ironies of human history, people will be teaching computers how to put people out of work, probably forever.
What about leaders, decision makers, movers and shakers?
Think you’re safe because you are a leader of people? Do you head up a team? Are you a supervisor? Do you run a company?
One question for a CEO, COO, CFO, C-whatever-O: what happens when there is nobody to lead?
Follow my logic here.
When the fast food restaurant automates order taking, cooking the food, delivering the food, unloading the truck full of frozen food, ordering more food when the inventory is low, do you really need a fast food restaurant manager?
When a machine is better at answering customer service questions than a human customer service representative, we won’t need a customer service rep. If we don’t have reps, we don’t have supervisors. No supervisors, no managers and heads of customer service.
If you don’t need the manager, why do you need area managers? If no area managers, why do you need executive leaders? You get the idea.
This is trickle-up automation. This is a luddite’s worst nightmare, and the singularity is approaching at an exponential rate.
The only thing left are the OWNERS of these machines and processors. Machines will run everything else–eventually. And I would say that eventually is a lot closer than we think.
What happens when everything is automated? None of us have to work, that’s what happens. Wealth will be at first concentrated with a few, but society finds a way to work that problem out over time. The democratisation of technology means we will all participate in the gains.
There is good and bad that will come with this revolution. I think it is what we make of it. I think it is a net positive in the history of humankind.
The richest person in the world in 2005 didn’t have the wealth of technology I enjoy today. Imagine the advances we’ll have in 2050.
If we have automated the work from life, we are left to be either consumers, or creators. However, the substance of what is left to create will be limited by the goods and services machines are already creating for us. In the same way the camera affected the appeal of realism in painting, so will the automation of machines change what is attractive for humans to create that can be “outdone” by the machine.
Impressionism will be a phenomenon that extends beyond the canvas as machines take over every aspect of our lives. We will seek the abnormal, the imperfect, the “human curated” experiences. The wealth that gives us this luxury of time will come from machines.
Will we automate 100% of every job? We probably won’t choose that as a society, but I believe eventually it is possible, yes. Maybe it is 50 years away, maybe 500.
The trends toward automation, and the speed at which we are currently automating everything show that in the end, I’m right.
Of course, on the safer side of the career spectrum will be psychologists, social workers, some teachers–basically those that work with other people.
But at some point, those are automated as well.
In the end, the only thing left for us humans is to create is Art. Musicians, painters, graphic artists, writers, poets, athletes (athletes create art? I think so. What else would it be?).
Art, by my definition, is the expression and creation of HUMAN work, typically done in a unique and creative way. By my definition, machines can’t create art.
I was in Brazil recently. My travel partner and I looked for “handmade” crafts and souvenirs. Knowing that the item we sought was created in a factory was a disappointment. Seeing a picture of a real life human person hand-crafting something carved from wood was intrinsically more satisfying and what we were after.
In the end, the purchase I was most proud of was from a street-artist hand-crafting flowers from old pieces of palm leaves. I loved it. My wife loved the gift. Why? Because it is art.
This won’t change. Our preference will be toward art. This is happening in every industry, from chocolate bean-to-bar production, to live acoustic music.
And you will be either a producer or consumer of this art. Again, to some extent we will all consume what the machine creates because this creates the wealth to allow us the luxury of choosing to be a consumer or producer.
And yes, the farmer will no doubt have to choose the family artisan farm if he or she desires to continue to work the soil. The farmer will have a choice to make. Ride the wave of automation to its end, then decide if they do want to “work”. However, the nature of their work will have changed. The work of the farmer will be to create food driven more by art, than necessity. And this will be the same choice we all may face in our lifetimes.
Automation has and will, at an ever increasing rate, continue to create wealth beyond imagination that will give humankind the gift of having our base needs met.
Art and relationships give us reasons to live.