We accept, almost without question, the idea that technology can make us more efficient. No small business owner would dream of replacing his or her PC, email and copier with a room full of typists. How enthusiastic will we be when a machine can not only add task-based efficiencies, but can actually replace our entire business?
“The question of whether Machines can Think … is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines can Swim.” When programming pioneer Edskar Dijkstra wrote that in 1984, he was criticizing what he believed was a futile quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Yet various recognized forward thinkers including Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates warn that we are approaching a point where we may regret developing computers that can think, or at least approximate the process of decision making.
Economists know that the shrinking of the middle class has been driven by technology, not by some mysterious ability of the rich to steal an unfair slice of the economic pie. The Economist magazine notes that the personal computer has had the impact on white collar employment that the steam engine had on blue collar labor. Not only typists, but salesmen, file clerks and research assistants number far fewer than a few decades ago.
Capitalism and competition in general cause us to seek the most cost-effective way to do business. How much does a McDonalds counterperson have to earn before it is less expensive to turn the touch screens around and let customers enter their own orders? Supermarkets are doing it with groceries, which are far more complicated than the menu at a fast-food restaurant.
Microsoft has demonstrated an instant language translation feature for Skype. It will be great for small businesses who want to sell internationally. It won’t be as good for translators.
Google is testing self-driving cars. How much of a leap is it to self-driving trucks that aren’t constrained by regulations on the number of hours they can operate each day, or can transport goods all night when roads are less congested?
Wages in lower-skilled jobs have stagnated under the pressure of replacement by technology, but computers are now moving up the skills ladder. We encourage children to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning in the belief that those areas will be safe from replacement. That may not be true.
An architect reads the requirements for a building into his computer. It needs to include a certain amount of square footage, house a number of employees and optimize the office space and construction costs. Via the Internet, the computer has access to the entire database of work flow, ergonomic and social interaction research. It produces a plan that optimizes the space, placing every piece of furniture, plumbing fixture and electrical outlet ideally and according to the applicable building code. It then transmits the plans to bidding contractors, with take-offs for each subcontractor already calculated.
How many skilled CAD operators, interior space designers, mechanical engineers and estimators did it replace? The arrival of such a system doesn’t even require major advances in Artificial Intelligence, just a (seemingly inevitable) increase in the computing power available at a reasonable price.
H.G. Wells postulated a world populated by Morlocks and Eloi; those who performed the dirtiest physical tasks, and those who lived in perpetual leisure because they didn’t have to work at all. Somehow, I don’t think it will work out quite like that.
In this column and elsewhere we talk about how small business success depends on our ability to lead and manage employees. That’s only true for as long as we have people doing the work.