Highly Employable Robots: Rethinking the Future

This week, just for kicks, I’ve turned over the writing of this column to the robot R2-D2.

There are a couple of reasons for this: first, because I’m bone lazy (and my writing has in the past been unkindly referred to as ‘robotic’). And second, because I’m attempting to stay at the bleeding edge.

This week, one of the largest media outlets in the world, The Associated Press (AP), announced that it had decided to replace business journalists with a computer program to write its stories. Having machines write its copy will allow AP to expand its output from 300 manually written earnings reports to 4400 each quarter.

It was enough to cause me to cough up my cornflakes.

Those bloody robots were supposed to stay in factories (or on television dating shows).

Sure, it’s one thing to write about the plight of the car workers in this country — those poor bastards who believed that they could continue earning high Aussie wages screwing doors onto unprofitable Ford Falcons. But what happens when disruptive technology sets its sights on the middle class?

The smart, educated people who did all the right things — studied hard, paid tens of thousands of dollars to get fancy letters after their name — and now sit in offices wearing neckties shuffling around paper (or regurgitating newspaper articles). What does the future hold for them?

Noted Irish economist David McWilliams summed up the likely situation in his article ‘Why technology is going to destroy middle class professions’:

“Lots of work that we term ‘professional’ is in fact mind-numbingly dull, repetitive and eminently suited to being cannibalised by machines. Think about the paperwork and form-filling which constitutes lots of legal work, of the tedious spreadsheet-based grunt work that is the bread and butter of many accountants. Could these jobs be done by machines? Absolutely. And it will be cheaper, without doubt.”

And it’s happening right now — and will only speed up.

Google has jumped from search engines to car engines. Their ‘side-project’ of creating self-driving cars has reportedly scared the hubcaps off Detroit automakers, who are worried their $US375 billion a year industry could be about to be Googled.

The concept of self-driving cars has mind-boggling flow-on effects for millions of people: from taxi drivers, to car dealerships, to auto-insurers (who is to blame in a world run on Google maps?).

And after snoozing through its iPhone alarm, Apple is reportedly about to roll out its biggest range of products; Dick Tracy-style watches that will monitor your vital signs and analyse your health.

It’s not just the tech giants that are leading the charge. Right now billions of dollars are being invested into data-crunching apps that will eventually automate many middle-class jobs.

It’s all very depressing right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about our very uncertain future, because part of my job (and most of my passion) involves talking to young kids about their financial futures.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I think they’ll be fine.

After all, young people, by their very nature, intuitively adapt to new technology — and use it to radically progress the human race (and pull the rest of us along with them to new heights).

And besides none of this techno-trash-talk is new. Famous Economist John Maynard Keynes warned that the world will be afflicted with a new disease called “technological unemployment”.

Here’s the thing: he made that statement in 1930, a number of years before the iPhone was released. Since that time, people of all ages have not only adapted to constant technology changes but exploited it to rapidly increase our quality of life.

So what’s the answer in this new age?

Well I could tell you to build a new app, sell it for a buck and become a multi-millionaire. Yet the odds you’ll do that are slim.

So let me give you something more realistic — a story of a woman who’s made technology work for her, not against her.

In 2011, Melissa, a young mum, couldn’t find any work in her little southern US hometown.

Twenty years ago, she would have been forced to uproot her family and move to find work. Yet Melissa was able to harness technology and bring opportunity to her doorstep.

She found her way on to a freelancing website called Elance, and began working with a crazy dude from down under who didn’t wear shoes.

Melissa is now my head of customer service and earns Australian wages — almost four times US minimum-wage. She works flexible hours from home and spends the bulk of her time raising her four kids, rather than commuting to a 9 to 5 desk job.

This is the first time in history that the world is truly connected — and for those of us who embrace it — it will provide amazing opportunities to live a life unconstrained by geographical boundaries.