Garbage, Trash, and the Future of Jobs

“Hey, wake up! You’ve got to see something amazing!” I gently wake up my four years old son.

He opens his eyes and mouth in a yawn. “Is it Transformers?” He asks hopefully.

“Even better!” I promise him. “Come outside to the porch with me and you’ll see for yourself!”

He dashes outside with me. Out in the street, Providence’s garbage truck is taking care of the trash bins in a completely robotic fashion. Here’s the evidence I shot it so you can see for yourself. –

 

The kid glares at me. “That’s not a Transformer.” He says.

“It’s a vehicle with a robotic arm that grabs the trash bins, lifts them up in the air and empties them into the truck.” I argue. “And then it even returns the bins to their proper place. And you really should take note of this, kiddo, because every detail in this scene provides hints about the way you’ll work in the future, and how the job market will look like.”

“What’s a job?” He asks.

I choose to ignore that. “Here are the most important points. First, routine tasks become automated. Routine tasks are those that need to be repeated without too much of a variation in between, and can therefore be easily handled by machines. In fact, that’s what the industrial revolution was all about – machines doing human menial labor more efficiently than human workers on a massive scale. But in last few decades machines have shown themselves capable of taking more and more routine tasks on themselves. And very soon we’ll see tasks that have been considered non-routine in the past, like controlling a car, being relegated to robots. So if you want to have a job in the future, try to find something that isn’t routine – a job that requires mental agility and finding solutions to new challenges every day.”

He’s decidedly rubbing his eyes, but I’m on the horse now.

“Second, we’ll still need workers, but not as many. Science fiction authors love writing about a future in which nobody will ever need to work, and robots will serve us all. Maybe this future will come to pass, but on the way there we’ll still need human workers to bridge the gap between ancient and novel systems. In the garbage car, for example, the robotic arm replaces two or three workers, but we still need the driver to pilot the vehicle – which is ancient technology – and to deal with unexpected scenarios. Even when the vehicle will be completely autonomous and won’t need a driver, a few workers will still be needed to be on alert: they’ll be called to places where the car has malfunctioned, or where the AI has identified a situation it’s incapable or unauthorized to deal with. So there will still be human workers, just not as many as we have today.”

He opens his mouth for a yawn again, but I cut him short. “Never show them you’re tired! Which brings me to the third point: in the future, we’ll need fewer workers – but of high caliber. Each worker will carry a large burden on his or her shoulders. Take this driver, for example: he needs to stop in the exact spot in front of every bin, operate the robotic arm and make sure nothing gets messy. In the past, the drivers didn’t need to have all that responsibility because the garbage workers who rode in the best of the truck did most of the work. The modern driver also had to learn to operate the new vehicle with the robotic arm, so it’s clear that he is learning and adapting to new technologies. These are skills that you’ll need to learn and acquire for yourself. And when will you learn them?!”

“In the future.” He recites by rote in a toneless voice. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Never.” I promise him. “You have to get upgraded – or be left behind. Take a look at those two bins on the pavement. The robotic arm can only pick up one of them – and it’s the one that comes in the right size. The other bin is being left unattended, and has to wait until the primitive human can come and take care of it. In other words, only the upgraded bin receives the efficient and rapid treatment by the garbage truck. So unless you want to stay like that other trash bin way behind, you have to prepare for the future and move along with it – or everyone else will leap ahead of you.”

He nods with drooping lids, and yawns again. I allow him to complete this yawn, at least.

“OK daddy.” He says. “Now can I go back to bed?”

I stare at him for a few more moments, while my mind returns from the future to the present.

“Yes,” I smile sadly at him. “Go back to bed. The future will wait patiently for you to grow up.”

My gaze follows him as he goes back to him room, and the smile melts from my lips. He’s still just four years old, and will learn all the skills that he needs to handle the future world as he grows up.

For him, the future will wait patiently.

For others – like those unneeded garbage workers – it’s already here.

 

Do You Want to Keep Your Job? Then You Have to be Nice

The Uber driver was being exceptionally nice to me this morning.

“Nice to meet you, sir!” He greeted me cheerily. “I see you want to get to the university. Please, come on in! Can I offer you a bottle of mineral water? Or maybe some pretzels?”

“Thanks.” I said. I looked at the ceiling. No hidden cameras there. “You’re very nice. Very, very nice.”

“Yes, I know.” His face shone in understanding. “But it pays big time. I get good grades from the customers, so Uber’s algorithm is providing me with even more passengers all the time. It just pays to be nice.”

“Oh, so you’re just like those lawyers, physicians and accountants?”

“I don’t know.” He said. “Am I?”

“Absolutely.” I said. “Or rather, soon they’re going to be a lot like you: just plain nice. The thing is, the knowledge industries – and by that I mean professions which require that human beings go over data and develop insights – are undergoing automation. That means artificial intelligence is going to perform a major part of the work in those professions, and then the human workers – the successful ones, at least – will become nice and more polite to their customers.”

“Take Uber for example.” I gestured at the smartphone at the dashboard. “Taxi drivers partly deal with knowledge generation: they receive information from the passenger about the desired destination, and they have to come up with the knowledge of how to get there, based on their memory of the roads. In the past, a mere decade ago, taxi drivers needed to know the streets of the city like the back of their hand.”

“But today we have GPS.” Said my driver.

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“Exactly.” I said. “Today, modern taxi drivers rely on a virtual assistant. It’s not just a GPS that tells you where you are. More advanced apps like Waze and Google Maps also show you how best to reach your destination, with vocal instructions at each step of the way. These virtual assistants allow anyone to be a taxi driver. Even if you never drove in a certain city in the past, you can still do a satisfactory job. In effect, the AI has equalized the playing ground in the field of taxi driving, since it lowered to a minimum the needed skill level. So how can a cabby still distinguish himself and gain an advantage over other drivers?”

“He has to be nice.” Smiled the guy at the wheel. I wondered to myself if he ever stops smiling.

“That’s what we see today.” I agreed. “The passengers are rating every driver according to the experience they had in his cab, since that is the main criteria left when all the others are equal. And Uber is helping the process of selecting for niceness, since they stop working with drivers who aren’t nice enough.”

“But what does it have to do with lawyers, accountants and physicians?” Asked the driver.

“We’re beginning to see a similar process in other knowledge-based professions.” I explained. “For example, just last week a new AI engine made the news: it’s starting to work in a big law firm, as a consultant to lawyers. And no wonder: this AI can read and understand plain English. When asked legal questions, the AI conducts research by going over hundreds of thousands of legal papers and precedents in seconds, and produces a final answers report with detailed explanations about how it has reached each answer. It even learns from experience, so that the more you work with it – the better it becomes.”

“So we won’t even need lawyers in the future?” Finally, the guy’s smile became genuine.

“Well, we may reach that point in the end, but it’ll take quite some time for us to get there.” I said. “And until that time, we’ll see AI engines that will provide free legal consultation online. This kind of a free consultation will suffice for some simple cases, but in the more sophisticated cases people will still want a living lawyer in the flesh, who’ll explain to them how they should act and will represent them in court. But how will people select their lawyers out of the nearly-infinite number of law school graduates out there?”

“According to their skill level.” Suggested the driver.’

“Well, that’s the thing. Everyone’s skills will be near equal. It won’t even matter if the lawyers have a big firm behind them. The size of the firm used to matter because it meant the top lawyers could employ tens of interns to browse through precedents for them. But pretty soon, AI will be able to do that as well. So when all lawyers – or at least most – are equal in skills and performance, the most employed lawyers will be the nice ones. They will be those who treat the customer in the best way possible: they will greet their clients with a smile, offer them a cup of tea when they set for in the office, and will have great conversational skills with which to explain to the client what’s going on in court.”

“And the same will happen with accountants and physicians?” He asked.

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“It’s happening right now.” I said. “The work of accountants is becoming easier than ever before because of automation, and so accountants must be nicer than ever before. Soon, we’ll see the same phenomenon in the medical professions as well. When AI can equalize the knowledge level of most physicians, they will be selected according to the way they treat their patients. The patients will flock to the nicer physicians. In fact, the professionals treating the patients won’t even have to have a deep understanding in the field of medicine, just as today’s cabbies don’t need to fully remember the roads in the city. Instead, the medical professionals will have to understand people. They will need to relate to their patients, to figure them out, to find out what’s really bothering them, and to consult with the AI in order to come up with the insights they need in order to solve the patients’ issues.”

“So we gotta keep the niceness on.” Summarized my driver, as he parked the car in front of the entrance to the mall. “And provide the best customer service possible.”

“That’s my best advice right now about work in the future.” I agreed. I opened the door and started getting out of the car, and then hesitated. I turned on my smartphone. “I’m giving you five stars for the ride. Can you give me five too?”

His gaze lingered on me for a long time.

“Sorry.” He finally said. “You talk too much, and really – that’s not very nice.”