Rise of the Machines

I know I’ve been something of a broken record on the advances in automation and robotics, and what it means to the future of the young people we’re preparing today. But the advances just keep coming! I think it’s important to realize how rapidly things are changing and how quickly this will change many occupations and industries.

Today’s shot of alarm comes (again) from Boston Dynamics. Here, they have a video of three different types of robots dancing to the Countours classic, “Do You Love Me” (watch the whole thing to see all of them join the party):

Silly? Maybe. But also engaging and attention-getting, with millions of views a day after release. An impressive demonstration of balance, motion and programming capability. As someone said on Twitter, maybe humanity won’t lose to the robots in a great war; maybe it will be a dance-off instead.

Historically, advances in new technology have created more employment opportunities than they have taken away, and there are lots of people who believe the same to be true today. I’m not so sure about that. The advances in recent years have been so dramatic that many jobs have the potential to almost disappear.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, used to brag that he took a $10 billion a year industry (encyclopedias) and turned it into a one billion a year industry: His technology didn’t result in a net gain of jobs, but rather a significant net loss. And, I think that will happen in other fields as well. For example, there are 3.5 million truckers on the road, making it one of the largest occupations in the US. Technology has promised self-driving trucks in the near future. Will that add to, or take away from, the number of available trucking jobs? Certainly there will be some role for people, like local deliveries and last-mile driving. But assuming the technology works as promised, the employment picture will be a shell of its former self. And what happens when you pair those self-driving trucks with a warehouse full of the robots seen in the video above (keeping in mind that warehousing employs upwards of 1.3 million people)?

And don’t forget the second-tier effects. When we replaced horses with cars at the end of the last century, it wasn’t just the horse breeders who lost out. Think of the people who shoed horses, ran stables and provided food and medical care. The same thing will happen here. If we move to automated trucking, what happens to the insurance industry, given vastly lower numbers of claims and reduced premiums as a result? What happens to the diner that fed all those hungry truckers near a distribution center or waypoint on the road?

I don’t know what the future looks like of course, but I do know that we need to help young people develop an entrepreneurial mindset and build a portfolio of skills that gives them the flexibility to go where the opportunity is. You never know when a dancing robot is going to start gunning for your job.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of the National Center for College and Career (NC3T) (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.