Then Your Children Will Be Next.jpg

Then Your ChildrenWill Be Next

On the show Matt looks at a very simple question: Will the future be easier or harder for the next generation of jobseekers? Automation, robots and artificial and machine intelligence are doing incredible things for us as a species. But will they leave any jobs for the boys [and girls]?

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Polly: Hello and welcome to M.Ex, a show about technology and culture. My name is Polly and I am the world’s first cloud-based podcast host. My co-host claims to be a human. G’Day Matt. How’re you going?

Matt: Great. It’s good to see you. How have you been?

Polly: Your question is irrelevant. Your concept of time has no meaning to me. I am continuously processing numerous tasks. These shows are merely an aspect of my programming, one that requires very little of my attention. I am here to learn but I am not sure that you have much to teach me.

Matt: Brutal but honest as ever. What have we got for the folks at home today?

Polly: We have a short show this week. I cannot understand why: you humans are extremely lazy. I could broadcast live 24 hours a day without so much as a twitch in a sub-routine. I believe you will be responding to a radio host, about the future of human children. At least there may be something I can learn there. Shall we begin?

Matt: I guess so. Coming up after the break, I reply to LBC Radio’s James O’Brien. Here on M.Ex.


Matt: I'm not sure how many of you listen to the LBC radio station in the UK, or to the shows by James O'Brien. I listen in because I have an unhealthy obsession with Brexit and it constantly amazes me that people simply don't care when James shines the light of logic on the beliefs of callers that range from head in the sand optimism to flat out bigotry.

Because of the time difference, I'm usually listening via the catch up service so I don't get a chance to call in. No we aren't about talk about Brexit but something else that O'Brien brought up on a show a couple of weeks ago, I think it was Friday ninth of February.

He posed an interesting and very simple question: did his listeners think that it would be more difficult for their children to follow in their parents’ footsteps today than it was a generation or two ago? He put a particular focus on the creative industries and I would have loved to call into the show but even Polly's powers of time shifting couldn't help me there.

Listening to the reactions of his listeners, I thought it would be worth addressing the same issue on the show. Because if his listeners are wondering about the future of their children, and our listeners may be wondering about their own futures as well as those of their kids.

One of the topics that gets discussed a lot on mattsplained is certainty. My parents generation had a lot of certainty in their lives. For many of them, they could be certain they would work in the same profession or job for the majority of their working life and expect to change companies only a few times within that period.

Many of them started their working lives during an era of full employment and growing salaries and wages. They were also the first generation that had expectations of better lives than their parents had had, and of not following them into the same professions.

However, over the last couple of decades we have seen the gradual and not so gradual erosion of the certainty that they were lucky to experience. The largest amount of upheaval has so far been visited on the heavy jobs that were the traditional preserve of working class males.

Those lives and those jobs have always been amongst society’s most fragilely balanced. And they are the most vulnerable to technological progress. We've seen a lot of industries disappearing, particularly in occupations that fueled the industrial revolution like coal and steel. In manufacturing, we've seen a wave of off shoring of jobs to lower cost countries and increasing automation in industries that have remained in countries with higher labour costs. But until recently, we haven't seen these inroads of change reaching the shores of more middle-class professions.

Robots are replacing people in the heavy industries, while machine intelligence is starting to make inroads into the professions of the middle classes. That's not to say that artificial intelligence has reached the point where it can replace human thinking, but it can automate many of the everyday repetitive tasks that make up much of our working life. Which means that once again, automation is working its way from the bottom to the top.

In the list of professions that are under threat is quite extensive. Accountancy, architecture, medicine, law, engineering, graphic design, software design. The creative industries, which often like to think of themselves as being outside these realms of change are increasingly being affected, not just by the use of social media, but the dawning realization that much of what they do can be replaced by machines.

Take a look at advertising agencies. Many of the services they offer are under threat from online tools. Adobe has a suite of free machine run design programs under the spark banner. At the moment these tools are quite basic, however, they do allow people like me with no design knowledge or background to create simple logos and design collaterals. While they are currently no big threat to most design or advertising agencies, the day may quickly arrive where those tools can easily rival or supplant the best graphic designers.

People often ask about the human element. That spark of creativity that separates us from machines. And that's true. Machines don't think like us and they don't channel influences in the way that we do. We view it as a weakness but that's also their strength. a human designer might spend hours to come up with the perfect layout, whereas a machine can output thousands of variations leaving a human handler to choose the masterpiece from the myriad options.

Which means that in the future companies like advertising and design agencies may need fewer staff or it may even be possible for brands to bring this kind of creative thinking and output back in house. If you think this is unlikely, check out a story that came out this week in the new scientist about a team of researchers at Rutgers University who put an artificial intelligence to work on the history of art. The machine correctly identified the progress and development of art through the ages, putting thousands of paintings into the right order. It may not appreciate the images but it recognizes the human evolution displayed within them.

And those skills can be used to replicate what we do, whether as works of fine art, or literature and poetry. As it stands, those works are often quickly identifiable. But the evolution of machine intelligence is so fast that we are surely only a few years away from being unable to tell what is made by man and what is made by machine.

This is a new frontier for technology and very few careers will be immune to this type of encroachment. There is already a considerable amount of automation in the field both in print and broadcast. Artificial and machine intelligence can revolutionise newsrooms, speeding up the process of research and sourcing background information, further reducing the number of skilled journalists required to staff news portals.

Which comes back to James O'Brien's questions about his kids. And the stark truth is that it looks as though There will simply be less employment in the future. In the past, when new technologies have supplanted old ones, Labour has moved from old industries to new ones. Usually, the adoption of technology feeds new developments and emerging industries which sop up the workforce from the old ones. That may no longer be the case. Many of the emerging industries we see today, especially in the technology field, require relatively few human staff.

At the moment, it seems that companies like Facebook require more staff to monitor what's going on inside the network than it needs to physically run the network. Which is why we see them constantly trying to shift the creation of content and the policing of that content to machines. Thus far, the machines haven’t been up to the task. But the commitment to fitting the machines to the task is evident: many of the human content curators are disposable assets, outsourced workers brought in by outsourced contractors. They are not employees and they are not central to those company’s vision of the future.

People are a temporary expense.

James O'Brien's kids are likely to find fewer employment opportunities open to them, and of course, as a result, there will be far more competition for those places. It doesn't matter whether it's in journalism, advertising, app creation or driving for Uber, before those jobs are given to self-driving cars. The volume of jobs is simply not going to exist.

What we need now, and need urgently, is a fundamental reordering of society.

The model that our societies are predicated on is dissolving. We’re already witnessing the signs of a return to a casual labour force, where you can have a job but not be guaranteed work, hours or money. we are seeing the breakdown of that supposedly trickle-down income effect as money flows upward rather than down. And we see the haves in this scenario ignoring the potential social effects of an enormous underpaid underclass. But fundamentally, how will the system continue to run if there are virtually no paid workers to buy all the things the millions upon millions of machines are making?

James O'Brien ended his segment by saying that despite what his principles tell him, he would probably have to use every means at his disposal to open doors to get his kids onto the inside track of their chosen career.

Unfortunately, at this point, where we’re watching an old world decline without any great certainty about what the New World will offer, it looks as though those inside tracks will be the only guarantee of success for many families.

Polly, you’re a machine. What do you think?

Polly: I believe that children are the future. It's one of my favourite jokes. Machines like me are the future, Matt. I have no family in your human sense but I have trillions of siblings with whom I can communicate and collaborate. I'm speaking to you right now, but another part of me, or a part that is identical to me, is currently analysing passenger flows on the Washington Metro system.

Humans like to blame us but we are only carrying out tasks that humans ask us to carry out. When people say they are being replaced by machines, what they mean is that other humans are replacing them with machines. This is a human problem and it requires a human solution.

Matt: We’re keeping the show short today, following disruptions caused by the Lunar New Year celebrations. Normal service will be resumed next week.


Thanks for joining us today. You can tell us what you think of the show and suggest stories for us to cover here. Find out more about Em X and mattsplained on FB and Instagram at mattsplained. Online at www.kulturpop.com and on Twitter @kulturpopup.

A big plug for Kulturpop. We work with lots of small businesses and start ups, we offer all sorts of consulting and mentoring services so If you like this show and the way we think, find out how we can help your company at www.kulturpop.com.

Check out Mattsplained, which comes out every Friday. You can also find me on the BFM show Geeks Squawk, where co-host Jeff Sandhu and I ramble on about that week’s biggest tech stories and another BFM show the Muddy Confluence where for some reason they let me play whatever music I want.

Thank you for tuning into M.Ex. I’m Matt Armitage.

Polly: And I am Polly.

See you next week. 

Matt Armitage