Throughout human history, innovation has brought about better jobs, better standards of living, and provided us with more opportunities. Humans shifted from being mostly agricultural workers to being producers in the industrial revolution, then to servers in the automation age. Examining the history of human innovation lightly can lead us to believe that innovation is always followed by better human life and better standards of living. The problem is, there’s something different about the information age and how innovation occurs.
The video above will serve a grim primer to this topic as we delve into the what lies ahead for the future of human production and how automation affects us.
First, let’s examine how innovation has improved our lives in the past. When the automobile was invented, it landed perfectly on the innovation continuum. It filled a massive need in the transportation industry and was completely feasible to create. The automobile created enormous industries, not only in the manufacturing of such vehicles but also services to people traveling in cars and transportation of goods in larger cars. The automobile created thousands of jobs and made the quality of living significantly better for all humans and a decent number of horses.
This is the perfect example of how innovation worked in the past. It solved problems, met needs, improved quality of life, and made more, better jobs. Now, we live in the information age. Most modern innovation isn’t physical, it’s digital. While we still have product innovation occurring as you likely see on those products displayed on late night infomercials, the most impactful innovation is occurring in a digital realm. This isn’t to discount the modern engineer, rather to bolster that good engineering is driven by digital advancement in the modern era. Software now has a far greater effect on our ability to create than hardware.
When innovations are digital, they have a greater capability to reach and effect change, but they also inhibit new job growth. Digital, modern, innovation improves our quality of life, improves how we create, but it fails to create more better jobs for humans. Amazon’s Alexa enables us to impulse buy on a whim, but it doesn’t create more jobs. In fact, when you consider the automation of factories and distribution centers, it results in a large net loss of employment. This is how modern innovation and automation is different.
We have been programmed to think of automation as robots doing repetitive tasks. After all, this was the automation of the past and mostly the present. Mechanical and digital systems are really good at learning how to do one singular task and do it well. We often fall to the fallacy that this is all automated machines and robots can do, one task and do it well.
This is somewhat true.
While machines and programs are very good at learning how to do one task and do it well, it doesn’t mean that complicated tasks can’t be automated given time and machine learning. Every complicated task, from flying an airplane to programming a computer, can eventually be broken up into small repetitive tasks filled with logic easily developed into an automated program.
Innovation is no longer physical, new products improve our quality of living without demanding that humans continue working. This poses a significant problem as we face rapidly growing populations and increasing needs for jobs.
The video below, while long, is perhaps the most impactful and well-communicated content piece created to explain the automation predicament that we currently find ourselves in.
Hearing all of this seeming negativity may leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. Especially for those of us that work on furthering digital innovation and improving automation like engineers, programmers, and others in the field. While modern innovation is different and poses some very significant problems to how we handle sustaining humanity, they can be addressed.
Innovation and automation are great threats to our way of sustained living, but the result of this “threat” will likely be significantly improved living. Humans are very often passively self-destructive, but we are very rarely actively self-destructive. In this instance, modern innovation and automation are active threats to job loss and future employment. At some point, we have to face this problem head on and lay out standards of how humanity can continue to function, even better than it currently does when there is little to no need for human labor.
To close, it is important that we understand how much digital innovation is capable of. Our connotative bounds on how innovation is driven developed from how innovation progressed in the past simply don’t work in the modern age. We now live in an age of science-fiction-esque innovation capabilities, which is an incredible opportunity, but we need to give gravity to just how powerful human ingenuity has become. The digital age of innovation shouldn’t be feared, but it should be wielded with responsibility.
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