Everyone has heard the old anecdote about the frog in a pot of water. If you raise the water temperature slowly, the frog doesn’t notice or react to the change, eventually allowing itself to be boiled alive. That’s where we’re heading as a country when it comes to technological advances and the threat they pose to millions of jobs.
Seemingly every day we read new stories in the media about artificial intelligence, data, and robotics — and the jobs they threaten in retail, transportation, carrier transport, and even the legal profession. Yet no one is jumping out of the pot.
Let’s be clear: This is not science fiction. In just the past few days, the New York Times has reported on how Amazon’s automation ambitions will be “putting traditional retail jobs in jeopardy” and about how technology is taking over some tasks once handled by lawyers.
A new study by research firm PwC found that nearly 4 out of 10 jobs in the United States could be “vulnerable to replacement by robots in the next fifteen years,” Recode reported. Many of those will be truckers, among the most common jobs in states across the country.
Yet when President Trump hosted truck drivers at the White House last week, he focused on health care, not uttering a word about the advanced driverless semi fleets that will soon replace them. His Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, shockingly said in an interview last week that we’re “50 to 100 years” away from artificial intelligence threatening jobs.
For a president whose campaign mantra was “jobs, jobs, jobs”, this shortsightedness on the job front is almost shameful.
It’s easy for sensationalist headlines about A.I. to dominate, like those about Elon Musk’s warning that it poses an existential threat. Yet the attention of people such as Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking should be a signal to Trump and Mnuchin that A.I. and related robotics and automation are moving at a far faster clip than they are acknowledging. This issue should be on the administration’s radar screen, and they should be jumping out of the boiling water.
Solutions won’t come easily. Already some experts suggest we will need a Universal Basic Income to offset the job losses. We also have to transition our workforce. Educational institutions such as Miami-Dade College and Harvard University have introduced advanced programming courses that take students from zero to six programming languages on a fast track. More needs to be done. This should be the most innovative decade in human history, and it has to be if we’re going to avoid a Mad Max dystopia in favor of a Star Trek future.
Of course, there are those who say similar warnings were raised as technology revolutionized agriculture and other industries. They might argue that then, as now, those advances led to more jobs. We would all welcome that outcome and the potential these changes have to improve our lives.
Technological advances could greatly reduce the cost of living, make housing more affordable, and solve some of the biggest challenges whether in energy or long-term care, an issue painfully familiar to so many families. Such advances may also help improve quality of life in the long term, as men and women gain greater flexibility to spend time with loved ones rather than dedicating 40 or more hours a week to working and so many others commuting.
In the near-term, however, the job losses that are possible could inflict tremendous economic pain. We are far from where we need to be. That will continue to be the case until policymakers, educators, and innovators come together to address the reality before us. We won’t solve this overnight, but we can’t afford to wait until it’s too late.
Jeff Greene is a Florida-based real estate developer, investor, and philanthropist who previously campaigned for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. He is also the founder of The Greene School, a K8 institution that teaches students skills needed for a global economy
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley. His new book, The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future discusses the choices we must make to build a great future.