One author says we have plenty of time before robots take over humans’ jobs.
As technology has advanced, Thomas Malone has watched his old family farm change drastically. The farm he grew up on once employed 15 people full-time and another 30 or 40 seasonally. Now, five people and many more machines farm about three times as many acres in land to produce significantly more goods.
He said the farmer who bought his family’s land also uses computers to do bookkeeping, which is father, uncle and grandparents used to do manually. He also likely uses it for quantitative analysis, such as crop yields and weather forecasting, Malone said.
In the 1800s, more than 90% of the country worked in agriculture, and today it’s only 2%. The jobs have gone away and been replaced with machinery, but more jobs were created as a result, Malone, author of the new book “Superminds,” told MarketWatch. “The new jobs that have been created are things my grandfather who moved here in the ‘30s could never have imagined,” he said. Jobs like website designer, software developer and online community manager.
Why you don’t need to worry about robots stealing your future job
Malone, who is also the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, has studied the ways technology has changed over the past few centuries, and what that means for humans today and in the future. Along with “Superminds,” he has written “The Future of Work.” The center researchers how computers and humans connect, and what that will mean for society in the future, such as economically and medically. Americans don’t have to worry about robots taking over their jobs, he said, even though it is common for people to consider robots a threat to their livelihoods. Some reports suggest one-third of American working-age men could be displaced by automation.
Malone spoke with MarketWatch about the ways in which seniors can adapt to technological changes and challenges, and where they fit in a rapidly evolving workforce.
Tom Malone: In a certain sense, I think that’s what we’ve always done. All uses of computers have involved people… people write the programs, decide which ones to run with, decide what to do when something goes wrong, and they do parts of the job that can’t be done by computers. We’ve used computers always that way and will continue to do so for quite some time. One word for groups of people and often computers doing things is “Superminds.” If you think about it, not just people and computers, but it’s people and people who have worked this way for almost everything humans have accomplished. History has been done not by solitary individuals but by groups of people, from inventing and writing to making the turkey sandwich I had for lunch yesterday. All of those things require groups of people, often hundreds of thousands scattered over time and place.
Malone: First, I think there is a stereotype that older people can’t or don’t want to use computers. I think we should try to go beyond that stereotype. Plenty of older people are using computers in all sorts of ways. My 90-year-old mom has an iPhone and an iPad and a printer and she uses Wi-Fi and she does a lot of things. If she can do it, a lot of other people can, too.
What is particularly important is the degree older people want to stay involved in the world of work or broader human activities that these new technologies have ways of doing. It is possible for instance to do serious work on the internet. There are websites that provide an infrastructure for people who want to do work, to find people who want work done, on a much more fine-grained level that a traditional 9-5 permanent job. There are all these tasks that people can do over the internet, and bigger tasks where you can even work for weeks or months on the same project without being a regular full-time employee. I think technology can help older workers stay in jobs, and makes it easier for them to do that whenever wherever they want without going through the extra overhead of driving to an office every day.
MarketWatch: What would you say are the misconceptions of older workers and technology?
Malone: There is widespread belief that older people are not good with technology. Some are, some aren’t, but nearly all can if they want to. My mother makes real use of technology. My uncle who died a few years ago didn’t, and he’s an example of someone who never owned a computer. I’m pretty sure he never touched a computer. He did have a cellphone but he didn’t use it very often. I think there are people who will do that and of course it is fine, but I think people who are willing to give it a try will find there are things you can do that are easy and fun.
MarketWatch: There is concern about some jobs going away because of computers. What do you think?
Malone: We should all relax about robots taking away jobs for at least two reasons. One, it’ll be a long time before robots can do everything humans can do. That’s likely to happen some day but not for many, many decades in the future. The second reason, even when you have a new technology capable of doing something in a lab, it can take years or decades before that technology spreads through the economy that would lead to loss of jobs. For instance, in 1995 when Amazon AMZN, -0.84% launched their website, they already had a commercialized version of the technology they needed to do online retailing and only now more than 20 years later we are beginning to see the effects.
It is likely that new jobs will be created. That’s what happened every time in the past when older technologies have taken over the jobs done by people. In every case people worried about jobs going away but in every case more jobs were created than destroyed. Sometimes those jobs are in other parts of the industry, or the same work, but other times it’s in different industries all together.
MarketWatch: How can older people or all people in general really prepare for a transition to these jobs we don’t yet know of?
Malone: It’s important workers of all generations know that the old model where you learn something in school or in the first few years of your career and that’s all you need to know for the rest of your career — you have to get rid of that notion. Likely our economy will continue to change at a more rapid pace over the next decade and that most people will need to learn many things throughout the course of their career to allow them to remain productive. I think that makes life more interesting.