We – the collective humanity – have always loved the concept of efficiency. “Better, Faster and Cheaper” have always appealed to us. But over the long term, efficiency has not always been in our best interests, perhaps because we never knew when to stop.
It follows a fairly consistent pattern that goes like this
- Identify a big problem to solve
- Several planned and unplanned events happen and then a tipping point is passed, and we swiftly move into the new world with little to no worries about the past
- We don’t stop there – a little bit of a good thing makes us believe that more of it must be significantly better . Rich people subsidize the first few generations of the solution.
- We live with un-intended consequences of our actions and debate how to solve the problems we created.
- Irony – what used to be the stuff everyone could afford to do in the past is now only possible for a few rich people.
History is a darn good teacher, if only we listen
Horses – and assorted carriages – were our primary mode of transportation for hundreds of years. Humans loved their horses – we know that from stories and movies and all that. But horses were high maintenance – they need to be fed and watered, they had vet bills, they produced a lot of organic waste that littered streets and so on. But we just worked around all the problems .
Along came automobiles – and they co-existed somewhat peacefully with horses and buggies. At some point – some smart people figured out a better way to pave roads, a good traffic management system, a way to mass produce petrol etc. And voila – we had more automobiles than horses. We swiftly moved from a scenario of a few rich people owning cars to only a few rich people being able to afford horses.
We did not stop there – we increased the number of cars we bought to a ridiculous extent and then tried to solve the ensuing traffic jam , increased carbon footprint etc by encouraging people to car pool and use HOV lanes . Our centuries old love for horses did not stand in the way – we left them behind and were happy to live with nostalgia via books and movies.
But have we learned anything really ?
When I used to visit my dad in his office in 1980s and 90s – the choice of a beverage was water or coffee/tea. If it was lunch time – the canteen will have one freshly made hot meal .
If I needed a soda, or a snack – I would have to take money from my dad and walk across the street to a bakery and get it. My family ate out once a month – and we knew some rich neighbors who would eat out twice a week.
Let’s fast forward to today . When my teenage daughter visits my office now – she can choose from twenty different things on the vending machine that accepts apple pay. If none of those looks good – she can order something on UberEats and have it delivered. Way more efficient for sure than when I was her age.
The picture is less pretty if we zoom out though. Obesity and the diseases it contributes to are on the rise – especially amongst children. High calorie , sugary stuff is availably aplenty at very low prices everywhere. So now I worry about the evil effects of convenience while sipping on diet soda from the vending machine. Meanwhile I hear from my mom that the rich people have switched to freshly home cooked food as their primary sustenance these days 🙂
So, where are we headed ?
The idea of convenience in the past had a simple premise – minimize the mechanical effort requited to get something done. We only want to think – we don’t really want to do !
To that end, we don’t even mind trading off our privacy for some added convenience. Now that we have a good idea how to minimize the doing part – we are probably not going to stop till we get close to doing absolutely nothing at all.
That leaves us with a big opportunity to now bring efficiency to minimizing our need to think and make decisions. So the future of efficiency is to find ways to delegate decision making so that we don’t tax our brains an awful lot.
This is not new – for example we have always heard stuff like “you have to delegate to succeed” in the workplace. But delegating to another human being is not very efficient in the grand scheme of things. Our decision making process is swayed by a lot of things – prejudices, how distracted or tired we are, the variety of our life experiences and so on. Just because we delegated to Jane and she did an amazing job, does not mean that we can repeat it fool proof with Joe or Jason, even if you spend time coaching them and giving them incentives etc.
Not to worry – that is where intelligent computer systems can help us. They may inherit the same prejudices etc that we humans have to begin with. But we can fix them and they will consistently be good at whatever we taught them. They may even get better at it over time and be as good or better than us.
When you are nearly out of coffee – your home assistant can order coffee for you looking at your past consumption choices. You can put some boundaries like how much $ to spend at most, or how often you want to be surprised with something new. Netflix already offers me better suggestions on what to watch than my own searches . So this is all pure awesomeness.
But we can’t stop here, can we now ? If the smart system can do so well with coffee – it can also do a good job with most of my grocery purchases – say 80% of all my needs. So I only need to drive to Walmart for a few things. Over time this will be true for most people in my neighborhood. At this point – Walmart will probably realize that there is no reason to keep a big super center in the neighborhood and its cheaper to give me some incentive to also do the other 20% of my shopping online.
There goes a lot of jobs in that store! Some – maybe all – of those jobs will reappear in their warehouse and IT/Data science departments. If my computer is doing my shopping – the grocery store does not need to send me coupons anymore. It should market electronically to my smart system. There goes some more jobs in marketing and ad agencies – also to be replaced with more jobs for full stack developers, security experts and even more data scientists !
So here is the question – Can those cashiers and assorted store employees be retrained into developers and data scientists and warehouse experts ? If yes – awesome. If no – well then we might have a big problem on our hands.
There may also be some tangential disruption. If most of our grocery purchasing is now automated – with some “surprise me” options – the data is suddenly of great interest to other industries like insurance companies . Will we start seeing mergers of health care payers and providers with grocery retailers and wholesalers?
Is there anything we can do to prepare ?
It is honestly beyond my comprehension to predict what all will happen as a result of all these things I explained above. But I am fairly convinced that we are wired in a way that we won’t stop till we disrupt our current ways of living and the speed of change will only increase with time – not decrease. We have proven that over and over .
The store employees maybe able to retrain – perhaps with the help of their employers and government – to acquire new skills. But how many times can they do so before it gets overwhelming ? Will it get harder as they grow older ?
Knowing some version of this story will play out in future – how do we redesign what we teach kids in schools and colleges ? Are we going to ask our elected representatives for concrete plans for all these when they are campaigning ?
Clearly I don’t know the exact answers, but I can venture some guesses
The current wisdom of “we need more STEM grads” may not be the magic bullet in the not too distant future. Engineering type disciplines will probably go past the stage where it does not need as many people to make things work.
One mainstream solution I expect is that most of the knowledge will be codified in some kind of expert systems. The skill needed by human users will not be about memorizing things – but in asking questions to these systems on the fly and then interpret answers for other humans. And when the system reaches a stage where it does not need a human user to help make it work – the human will just move on to a higher order area and repeat this process.
For example – a Cancer doctor in future will probably not need to spend a lot of time learning to diagnose or treat cancer. Machines will probably do most of that and probably can debate with other machines to get to great diagnosis and treatment plans. The doctor’s job will probably be to provide a humane face to this process – helping the patient with emotionally dealing with all this, answering questions and helping make decisions.
A history teacher might not need to remember or teach the dates of important wars and other events , or names of all the characters. Her job might be more of connecting “what can we learn from this so that we can change what we do in future?” for the students. Once the teacher decides that part – probably computers can craft the story telling in a way that is personalized for each student . Instead of just suggesting a movie for me – Netflix might be able to put together a full movie just for me when they understand me a lot more than they do today.
The current needs for STEM talent will probably continue for a long time. But we may also start needing more philosophy and history majors, and more ethics experts to help plan and execute for the rapidly evolving world around us. There is a part of me that thinks we will need a lot more psychology majors and therapists to help us all deal with the stress this will potentially create. I am not too sure on this last part – because I also think we will adapt quickly like how we moved past the horses that we dearly loved not that long ago.
Keeps life interesting, eh ?