Automation, Creative Destruction, and Your Job in Technology's Crosshairs

Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management discusses the concept of creative destruction, which explains the phenomenon of automation simultaneously wiping out existing industries while creating new ones in their place.

Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management recently visited Big Think to discuss a subject that's sure to fill readers with glee: robots destroying your jobs!


Okay, so maybe not glee. Perhaps dread. Or paranoia. The median American worker has a lot to fear, says McAfee, especially if they do what is described as "routine knowledge work." Those jobs exist in the sweet spot where technology is making its greatest inroads. McAfee explains in today's featured Big Think interview:

McAfee employs two examples of professions that are feeling pressure from automation: tax preparers and lawyers. Each is a high-skill job that requires advance education and mastery of policy, formulas, and research. The problem for folks currently employed in these positions is that, day by day, computer programs are improving their abilities to perform these duties and often better than any human could. McAfee points to TurboTax as an example:

"The constituency that’s most negatively affected is the body of tax preparers out there. These are folk who are actually above-average educated. They’ve been to college. They’ve been to an advanced degree. They’ve got a CPA. They’ve done the right thing. They’ve invested their human capital in an area they thought would lead to a long and productive career. And all of a sudden, here comes a $40 piece of software that’s putting a lot of downward pressure on their wages."

As for law, which McAfee calls a "high-prestige, well-paid, highly educated profession," the ability of a computer program to scour through hundreds of court documents in search of a smoking gun supplants the need for the army of lawyers previously employed to complete such a task:

"We’ve got a category of software called eDiscovery where you basically just tell it what you’re looking for, hit a button, and milliseconds later you get back every instance of that pattern. If there’s a smoking gun in the documents, it’s very likely to find it. The head-to-head comparisons that we’re able to do between the results of eDiscovery and the results of that army of lawyers sitting around and reading documents indicate that the eDiscovery actually gives you higher-quality outcomes. So a lot of these trends are putting pressure not just on that classic median American worker, but even on fairly highly educated, well-paid ones like law."

McAfee explains that the advancement of technologies such as these falls in like with an economic phenomenon called creative destruction, a theory of economic innovation developed by Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter during the 1940s. A basic summary of creative destruction is as follows: as innovation occurs and revolutionary new technologies are introduced, former industrial structures will be dismantled with new ones constructed to take their place. If computers wipe out the last of the tax preparers, a new breed of workers (McAfee uses the example of data scientists) will emerge.

So is your job in danger of being automated in the coming decades? For the longest time, the basic understanding was that machines could only supplant blue-collar manufacturing professionals. That era is over. White-collar, high-skill, whatever-you-want-to-call-it professions are now in the crosshairs, particularly ones that focus on formula repetition, operations via template, data entry and search, and mastery of rules or policy.

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