The Economics of Automation & You

It’s true that many tasks people do in their work will be automated in the future. It’s also true that the only reason for a company to it is to save money.  So where does the saved money, and do the displaced people go?

Firstly, we know what happens, because it has already happened a number of times. It happened when agriculture was automated. Prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of people worked directly in agriculture, and now it is less than 5% in developed economies. We also saw it when production line labour was replaced with robotics. And even though this time the displacement will involve intellectual labour, the pattern will remain unchanged, and it goes like this…

  1. Company replaces workers and reduces operating costs.
  2. Company must then decide where to distribute cost savings – options include;
  • Increase profit margins
  • Reduce prices and sell more
  • Reinvest funds for growth (New Product / Distribution / Promotion / R &D)

All of which must be considered in a competitive context. Yet, invariably the same thing happens again, and again and again. The new margin gets competed away. Competitors respond and also reduce price to maintain market share either by adopting similar technology or cutting margins. (Monopoly markets and IP protected innovations being rare exceptions)

Car prices are a good example. In the past 30 years due to automation prices have dropped radically. Comparing the same General Motors model large sedan in Australia gives us the following cost in real terms:

  • Price when new – 1998 = $25,077 (96% of average annual income)*
  • Price when new – 2018 = $35,990 (42% of average annual income)*
*Aust Bureau of Statistics.

Mind you, cars today are infinitely better than models from 30 years ago.

Why does this matter for workers? It matters because it tells us that while automation reduces the need for labour, it also reduces the cost of goods. Which means that consumers get to allocate ‘savings’ on other goods and services – often in entirely new markets creating a substitution effect. And this, is the art of being future proof:

We must also substitute ourselves.

To stay relevant, we need to change places like the money does. It may mean we need to develop new skills, it may mean we have to change location, organisationally and even physically. Work will change, work will move, but it will never disappear. To be sure, the transition for the ‘automated’ will be uncomfortable. Just like it was uncomfortable for the 80% of people who could not read in 1800. But here is what would be more uncomfortable:

If we had no possibility to reinvent ourselves. If the worlds education resources weren’t mere keystrokes away and mostly free. If you couldn’t read or write (the most complex intellectual task humans have ever developed – which proves we’re smart enough to learn new skills with effort).

But we know that these things aren’t true. Reading this is evidence in itself that we all have access to the tools we need to cut new ground. The only real question is if we’ll make the investment in ourselves to become what tomorrows market will probably demand.

But what will the robots want?

The exponential improvement of robotics is astounding. This dancing robot from Boston Dynamics is making me wonder if they should be called CyberDyne Systems! But, what if the robots do get as ‘human’ as many technologists are predicting? What if the robots move far beyond computation, dexterity and into the realms of emotion, intuition, creativity and other human characteristics? Will they destroy us or will something more interesting happen?

There is a non zero probability that robots with emotions will lose their hard edge for efficiency and non-stop labour. If robots become sentient, which is the main fear, then just maybe they’ll be more interested in their own well being than destroying their creators? When we remember that we’ve designed Artificial Intelligence in our own image, both physically and intellectually – then it is possible that we’ve also built in a bias for them to mimic us emotionally too.

  • Maybe they’ll demand wages, annual leave, holidays and rest time?
  • Maybe they’ll build communities and domiciles and reshape their physical surrounds to suit them?
  • Robots may want to have life partners and give birth to progeny by downloading combined algorithms into their ‘children’.
  • They might become interested in weird forms of entertainment and sport, and themselves become consumers who make and sell things in the market?
  • Maybe they’ll hire other robots (or humans?) to do tasks for them if they are rich robots working in a profitable industry?

If the bots become more human like, then we have to consider the chance that they too will have imperfections, their own desires and be by driven by things beyond mere survival. A future world may even have its share of unemployed, lazy robots too.

I know this sounds crazy. But technology so often takes an unexpected turn. At the dawn of the internet many of us thought it was the end of lying. We thought that the digital truth would reign supreme as fact checking was just a few clicks away, and not hidden in some dusty library. And we all know how that turned out.

In a world where technology astounds us, it makes sense to imagine equally unlikely outcomes and scenarios when considering future possibilities. In the future, one of the most valuable assets we can hold, will be an open mind.

What is TATE? A mega growth industry

After a keynote speech, I was asked again today what will happen to all the people who will lose their jobs due to Automation and Artificial Intelligence. The example cited was people who drive for a living. While I’ve written about this before, as well as the shift off farms to the cities in the industrial dawn, this time I thought it might valuable to propose an entirely new economy – The Autonomous Transport Economy or TATE.

TATE will allow a set of entirely new business models, consumer products and employment created by the advent of driverless vehicles and drones. Before we do that, let’s explore the last time something like this happened, something we all experience daily: The Night Time Economy.

A little over a hundred years ago there was no night time economy. Artificial light used to be inordinately expensive, unobtainable to many, smelly and dangerous. Candles, kerosine lamps, open fires and gas lanterns that did provide light weren’t nearly as convenient as the electric light we now take for granted. When wood was the main source of light, it took 60 hours of work to generate the equivalent lumens of a modern light bulb shining for a measly 54 minutes. ‘Light’, which was once too expensive to use, is now too cheap to notice. The significance of cheap electricity is profound. Electricity invented the 24 hour economy. Before that our productive life, and economy, was mostly restricted to daylight hours. Think of everything you now do at night, and you’ll get a perspective of what the ‘night time economy’ has generated – cinemas, bars, nightclubs, night markets, restaurants and 24 hour production. In the home, we have television, radio, entertainment, gaming, white goods and pretty much everything that happens when the lights go down. And yes, it would’ve been difficult to predict the industries and jobs that inevitably arrived to support this entirely new economy. As it is difficult now to predict The Autonomous Transport Economy (TATE).

The possibility for economic change, and therefore growth driven by TATE, is bigger than everyone imagines. A few simple ideas for stimulus display how much opportunity lies before us to create tomorrow’s jobs. The best way to predict the future by asking a few simple questions:

What will happen to Carparks? How will we reconfigure the real estate of high rise and underground carparks. What will we use these concrete caves for? Day time popup shops and night time charging stations? Places for Autonomous cars to sleep and get cleaned?

What will happen to the ground space in cities allocated to car parking – where our cars have a little rest? This averages 30% in large cities. Will we green them, make pedestrian friendly or build on them?

We can expect real estate prices and populations in Exurbs (places of great beauty within 2 hours of a major city) to increase as people decide to live further afield, work remotely and travel to the city autonomously for their meetings or 2 office days per week.

Offices will shrink, as large companies realise costs for running a Corporate Taj Mahal in a city can be reduced re-assessing the need for expensive real estate and the impact on a lengthy commute for staff. As they realise team members only need to be in the same room a few days a week and not five, the corporate office will fragment into smaller distributed work places. A large corporate might have satellite offices or share co-working spaces around the state, knowing of course that the autonomous vehicles will zip workers to the city at 200km per hour when meetings are needed.

These new driverless vehicles will be reconfigured very differently to current day cars. Some will be fitted out as fully connected rolling offices, and they’ll look more like a business class cabin on a plane than seats do today (which are really just stage coaches with a motor instead of a horse!).

We can expect cars to be redesigned and new versions of cars to be invented. Just like we invented buses and pick up trucks, we’ll invent Sleeper Vehicles. These will be designed for longer trips (Overnighters), or for those requiring a bit of luxury while in transit. People will own them, some will order on demand. They’ll look more like a bedroom or lounge room than a transport device.

E-commerce arrived with the web, and now we can expect R-commerce or Rolling Commerce. It’s an entirely new type of buying we’ll do which is time- and geographically-specific, based on where we are and where we are going. It will claim some of the time we used to allocate to drving.

As a result, industries will pop up to support R-commerce, including RX designers (Rolling Experience) and build strategies around the money which is expended in vehicles. It will become a commercial measure among retail, ecommerce and other documented economic indicators.

Shopping centres will become distribution hubs, where the giant carparks we currently have are converted into autonomous retail pick up up bays by day and electric recharging stations and cleaning zones by night.

Why just sit and relaxing in the car on the way? Why not order an a GymCar with built in exercise machines and do some rowing or weight lifting on the way to the city?

With the worry of crashing your gone, we’ll still need Hacking Insurance. While it will be rare, it’s already proven to be possible and hacking will generally become a major pivot for the insurance industry in many product arenas. The fear of cars being hacked will recruit and educate consumers to insure every digital product they own against hacking.

We can expect cars to be tracked thorough using blockchain technology. One owner who only drove it on Sunday? We’ll know everywhere the car has been, done and had done to it. Even our payments for utilising cloud cars will be built on this tech sooner than we think.

Of course, cars will use more data than houses. If we choose to own one, there’s a good chance we’ll send it out to work when we are not using it. It’ll need data for entertainment, commerce, deliveries, and of course driving itself. Expect data packages to become a major selling point with cars. Cars sold in regional areas might just come with satellite data access. (Powered by SpaceX? Maybe they’ll provide the cloud that powers transport data?)

Roads will need to be redesigned to cope with autonomous transport. Concrete, steal and meta-strcuture will need to be built by hand and machine creating significant employment. We’ll first see signs on the road which say “You are now entering an autonomous vehicle zone.” Eventually, human driving will be outlawed as new laws redefine how we move.

All this excites me – I see new industries, employment and opportunities to create a greener, safer more fluid world – most of which we are yet to imagine.  All we really need is the willingness to move towards our inevitable future.

Go build it – Steve. 

The inevitable merger of our species with machines

It is said that we become the thing we are immersed in. I feel like we are starting to merge with the technology we have become so reliant on. From the world’s most connected human, to a gentleman named Mr Meow Meow who recently had an NFC chip installed in his body to make catching public transport more convenient in Sydney.

For a long time we have been augmenting our bodies with technology – hip replacements, heart valves, contraceptive devices, but until now, most of the technology has been static and does not interact with anything outside the body. We may be on precipice of radical change.

This week I had a discussion with ABC radio on the issue and even a potential split in our species – organic humans and augmented humans, or cyborgs… These here are interesting times. Click here to have a listen.

Be sure to follow my instagram page – @sammartino with regular posts on the evolution of technology, and making sure you too, are future proof.

Stay rad, Steve. 

Why you should love Youtube advertising & other things you hate on the internet

We often forget that the thing we don’t like about something is also thing that makes it possible. The annoying part of something good, is usually what keeps it alive and provides us the gifts that surround it. One case in point is Youtube advertising. It’s so annoying isn’t it, to spare that 5 seconds before clicking out, or that entire 30 second advertisement you can’t even click out of – how dare they. What we ought do is imagine for a minute that Youtube never found its monetization model. Then what? Then it probably fails, doesn’t exist and instead of having pretty much all forms of education and entertainment on demand on any topic, any time, we’d be stuck with a few free to air TV channels, home shopping, and marginal pay TV subscriptions.

The cost of the benefits is rarely a heavy price to pay, especially with new technology and disruptive innovations which need to have lower barriers to inspire adoption. And speaking of disruptions – the advertising we have to endure is not nearly as bad as it was in the TV era. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that misdirected hate is both a waste of energy and a short sighted perspective.

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