By Guy Higgins
I just came across an article, The Only Manufacturing Skills Shortage That Matters. The article addresses two concerns. The first concern is that there is a serious shortage of Americans with the skills needed by manufacturers. The second concern is that people are being replaced by automation – specifically by systems with imbedded artificial intelligence algorithms. I’ll come back to that one skill later in this post. I’ve also noted a plethora of articles about the imminent destruction of all jobs as a result of the spread of artificial intelligence and automation. Seems that the talking heads are foreseeing a future in which human beings no longer have a purpose. I can’t help myself – I have to comment.
The concern about artificial intelligence is that we’re rapidly creating something that we aren’t prepared to deal with – that people will be displaced from jobs and unable to find employment. Certainly the computer programs that we label as “artificial intelligence” are making progress and becoming increasingly capable. However, even though desktop computing began to show up in the workplace over thirty-five years ago and has now become ubiquitous, it continues to have security, performance and reliability issues.. It has also become so complicated that special, certified system experts are needed to fix computer problems (which though much less common than fifteen or twenty years ago, are certainly far from rare). I don’t believe that there is a single organization that doesn’t have some kind of IT department to provide (among other things) solutions to these problems that employees experience with their computers. So, I think that the forecasts of an imminent collapse in the need for human labor are overblown.
I recently replaced my high-speed modem. For some reason (that no one has been able to explain to me), I could not get my new modem to connect to my Apple Time Capsule. I called my ISP and followed their directions. Those directions may have worked just fine for a Windows environment, but I’m in an Apple environment and the directions ended up resetting my Time Capsule so that I had to re-establish my home network. That led me to having to reconnect all of the computers, devices and various other things that were connected to my computer. While that is certainly better than the old “Blue Screen of Death” that we all laugh about today (but feared then) it is not an acceptable situation. More importantly, problems experienced while making relatively simple, straightforward upgrades and changes do not bode well for a future in which all work is done by artificial-intelligence-enabled machines. Who’s going to fix the malfunctioning (or worse yet, hacked) repair-bot? This does not, to me, reflect an environment in which I think that computer programs are going to completely replace people – not in the foreseeable future.
I’ll also observe that a casino was recently hacked via an automated (and networked) fish feeder in the aquarium that they had in their lobby to provide ambience. In fact, cyber security is a huge area of risk – particularly in areas requiring “intelligence.” There are legions of hackers who attack cyber systems for a variety of reasons, including:
- To prove they can
- For grins and giggles
- For revenge
- For profit
These hackers need succeed only once in attacking your system. Your cyber-defenders need to be successful 100% of the time.
I think that we have no idea what the future of automation, artificial intelligence and labor is going to be – not any more idea than the Luddites had when they attacked steam engines for eliminating jobs. Humans have eliminated untold jobs – including things like mastodon skinner, privy cleaner, goose quill salesman and railroad brakeman (the guys who had to set brakes on each railcar and whose jobs were rendered obsolete when George Westinghouse invented the railroad airbrake, thus saving the lives and limbs of a multitude of railroad workers).
Further, I think that the hedgehogs among the talking heads (I’ve posted about Isaiah Berlin’s foxes and hedgehogs before – hedgehogs are people who know a great deal about a narrow area and see everything through the lens of their “stove piped” knowledge) are grossly optimistic – they focus on what the algorithms can do and not the limitations and vulnerabilities of the rest of the system.
Now, back to the one skill that matters – the author of that article names that skill as the ability and willingness to learn. I agree. If employers focused more on the willingness and ability of potential hires to learn, they would be far better off. Experience can be important, but it’s less important in a world where change is rapid and continuous. My experience is what I did – not necessarily what you’ll need me to do in two years.
- Artificial intelligence – like all tools, it could be useful, but it needs to be employed by skilled people who won’t surrender judgment to a couple of ounces of silicon.
- Disappearing jobs – yep. They’ve been disappearing for several thousand years and they’ll continue to disappear. Lifelong learning is the answer, so individuals can be ready for the next job.
- Employers – in the worlds of Wayne Gretsky, “Skate to where the puck is going to be.” Hire people who will be able to do the things you need to do in the future, even if you don’t know yet what those things are