Old MacDonald Lost His Job…. A.I. A.I. Oh!

It’s not often that you can pin-point the exact time when a class of job becomes effectively extinct, but a couple of weeks ago such a proposition was plastered loudly and proudly in an advertisement on the back of The Economist.  It was placed there by Oracle, the data company that grew to prominence powering the web.  What struck me about the advert wasn’t the slightly breathless hyperbole, you expect that from Silicon Valley, it was the nature of the language used and the message being sold.  The advert pronounced: 

The World’s First “Self-Driving Database”

Oracle Autonomous Database

No Human Labor – Half the Cost

No Human Error – 100x More Reliable

This is the first white collar job replacement that I can remember being advertised on the basis of perceived human cost and fallibility.  The Oracle Database Administrator (or DBA) is (or maybe now, was) one of the prestige operational roles in IT departments across all industries.  It’s been that way since I first started my own IT career over twenty-five years ago, commanding a good six figure salary.  Now IT services such as the DBA role are going the way of electricity (which used to be site specific) and becoming a utility, provided from off-site locations, automatically.  Programming will surely follow.   

Most cloud or Artificial Intelligence offerings push an augmented human model, think the advertising you’ve probably seen for Azure (Microsoft’s Cloud/Analytics offering) or IBM’s Watson. These show how computing power can help the (highly skilled) human employee do their job better, faster, easier.  In those short heart-warming TV spots, we watch from behind transparent boards as serious people gather round one another, make notes in arcane symbols and nod knowingly.  Sometimes the symbols glow.  The point is, it is still shown as the human’s job.  We feel reassured that the impact of the technological change will be munificence.

The Oracle advertisement is the first that I can recall that is proud to offer a blatant replacement to humanity.  Proud in identifying human involvement in the process as a problem in need of a fix.  I can see the same argument soon being used for a number of white collar jobs.

For me one of the key messages of the film Hidden Figures was not only how appallingly the African Americans protagonists were treated, or the hoops the women had to jump through for recognition, but also, how easily they and all the other human computers were replaced by machines.  I see a similar fate eventually overtaking the quants of the finance industry and other information driven work including IT and Medicine. 

Many white collar jobs will have the same fate as last century’s blue collar ones.

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently and mentioned coal production in West Virginia.  How Trump used it against Hillary.  This idea there has been a War on Coal, that production was down.  US jobs were replaced by mining in China or India or were lost because of those pesky environmentalists demanding renewables (of which I am proud to say, I am one.)  It’s a trope that make sense… unless you look at the evidence.

In the 1940, 113,000 West Virginia miners produced 126.6 million tons of coal.  In 2008 (the best production year within the last decade) 21,000 miners (out of 29,000 employed in the Coal industry) produced 165.7 million tons of coal.  That is a 75% decrease in coal mining jobs for an actual increase in coal output.  Coal production numbers since then have not dipped that significantly, despite the Great Recession.  What changed?  Coal production shifted from digging mines to blowing the tops off mountains and using giant trucks to scoop out the material.  The War on Coal wasn’t a War on Coal, it was a war on using human muscle to extract it. 

In Australia Rio-Tinto are removing the drivers from those trucks, 30% of its Australian mining fleet will be fully autonomous by the end of 2019, next year.  

Uber want to do the same with their fleet.

This is a pace of change that is hard to relate to when you are in the middle of it, where you lack a space for perspective.  But, we can learn from the past, we’ve seen such change before.  In 1701, Manchester, England was a village of about 7,000 people.  A century later, in 1801 it had grown to 85,000, fifty years later, well within one lifetime, it had swollen to 250,000, reaching almost a million by the end of the 19th Century.  Birmingham, England was the same.  Society moved from Agrarian to Industrial.  People rushed from the countryside to the towns as new industry, new sectors and new jobs were created.      

Oxford University has predicted that 47% of Jobs will disappear in the next  twenty-five years.  The jobs we do now may not (more likely will not) exist when our own children graduate from University.  That was always the pattern with previous eras of mass industrial change.  New jobs and new challenges replaced those lost.  The only difference I see between then and now, is that this time the newly minted jobs created by change might not be for human consumption

The first industrial revolution set the stage for the great welfare and education reforms of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  This new Industrial Revolution could lead to a similar reforming zeal.  If we embrace such reform the future could be glorious.  There could be (paid) free time to pursue education, art, sport and recreation, exploration and research not for profit but for building the human experience.

Of course, if we get it wrong then the future may be closer to that envisioned by some famous literary observers of the effects of that first Industrial Revolution in Manchester:  Messrs Marx, K and Engles, F.