What Horses, Watches, And Bookstores Can Teach Us About Why Automation Won’t Kill Jobs

A few months ago I spoke on a panel, and I was asked a question that I am always asked about AI and automation – will it kill jobs? And if so, what do we do? The answer I gave surprised many people who said they had never heard an answer like this before so I thought I would write about it here.

Here’s a heuristic that will guide the way – things we no longer need don’t always go away. Sometimes they die briefly, but then are resurrected as status symbols.

Bookstores

When I was working on my MBA in 1998, my business school professors were freaking out because they had no idea what business was going to look like when the Internet really took hold. I had a professor tell us that in 5 years all brick and mortar retail would be dead, and that we would only shop online. Obviously they were very wrong. If you take bookstores as an example, you might be surprised that while Amazon initially put a big dent in the bookstore industry, there are now more bookstores in the U.S. than there were before Amazon. The algorithms of Amazon are super efficient but, they don’t provide the serendipity, the community, or the curation we sometimes desire.

Watches

I remember playing golf with a friend in 2007 who said “wow, you still wear a watch?” He told me he had no need for one because he had a cellphone and it always had the time. The cellphone was, for a while, definitely killing the wristwatch, but much like independent bookstores, it appears that watches are starting to come back as more of a status symbol than ever before.

Horses

Two hundred fifty years ago, everyone owned a horse. That’s how you got somewhere. When cars came around, it didn’t kill off the horse industry altogether. Instead, horses became expensive status symbols. To own a racehorse, or to participate in equestrian events, it it’s own culture and community filled with mostly wealthy people.

So what does all of this tell us about AI, automation, and jobs?

I believe that as jobs get automated away, employing people to do a thing, instead of robots, will become a status symbol. Humans are always competing with each other for status, and that won’t stop. Bookstores, watches, and horses didn’t go away, although they did change in different ways.

But, some things do go away forever. For example, no one washes clothes by hand now that washing machines were invented. How do you explain that?

My theory is that there are two kinds of jobs. There are jobs machines are better at, and will always be better at. And then there are jobs that really can’t be done much better, but could be done faster or more efficiently. by a machine. The latter category jobs will emerge as a status symbol if you have a human still do it. Those jobs will pay well because they now become “luxury services.”

If I think forward and see some new jobs emerging as a result of AI automation (data curator, data annotator, model trainer, AI designer, etc), and see some jobs becoming status symbols as mentioned above, and also factor in that hybrid human-AI partnerships will upskill some low skilled workers and enable them to keep working, I’m actually pretty bullish that at least for the next few decades, we don’t have a problem with automating jobs away. There will be economic upheaval, and some industries will be like the clothes washing industry and suffer pretty greatly, but, at the macro level I believe the story will actually be all right.

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