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Orchard Q&A Series: Alexa? When is the robot apocalypse?

Orchard Q&A

During a Q&A session at a recent Orchard Meetup themed ‘Dispelling Common Data Myths,’ an attendee expressed concern about the future of employment and the prospect of increasing unemployment at the hands of computers/robots. Before you laugh, consider that she’s in good company. A number of people are worried about everything from mass technological unemployment to a looming Herbert-esque “thinking machine” apocalypse, including this well-known physicist and thinker, and many other scientists, technologists, and experts in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).


I should point out that my intention isn’t to trivialize the very real concerns these experts have expressed. I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of people—much smarter people—who have been thinking about these issues for much longer than I have. But I would recommend reading this article about the current state of A.I., before losing too much sleep over the impending robot uprising.


That said, after a short hop down the Google rabbit hole, I learned that a debate still rages over whether long-term technological unemployment is a real thing. In short, on one side are those who believe that any jobs lost because of the introduction of new technologies are eventually offset by jobs created by the progress these new technologies bring. The other believes that new technologies will inevitably lead to increasing unemployment over the long-term, putting our entire economic system at risk. And while this debate has been going on for decades, interest and study have picked up recently as computers and software have become more and more efficient, powerful, and sophisticated, and capable of displacing an ever-broader range of employees.


The Optimist’s View

I recently spoke with our Chief Analytics Officer, David Snitkof. He falls into the more optimistic group; believing that the benefits of the seismic shifts being driven by technology today will far outweigh any uptick in technological unemployment tomorrow.


“While this term is probably overused by the media a bit these days, it is fitting here. Creative Destruction is the idea that new methods of production, or new markets and companies, are constantly being created to displace outdated or wasteful methods. Capital constantly moving to its highest and best use.


Another feature of Creative Destruction is shifting patterns of employment.


It’s easy to focus on the initial phase of short-term job loss when a new technology begins to displace workers and to worry about whether or not it will happen to you and your profession, because the experience of losing a job is typically negative, felt immediately, and on a very personal level. It’s much more difficult to picture and be ready to capitalize on opportunities that will arise as a result of yet-imagined technologies, industries, and professions just over the horizon.


I tend to view technological progress as a continual process focused on delineating what humans are good at from what computers are good at, and working to build better systems that allow us to focus on what humans do best.

Let computers do all the data processing, aggregation, market making, and repetitive tasks; that’s what they’re great at. Leave humans to do what humans are geared for: building relationships, thinking creatively, taking intuitive leaps, and bringing their unique individual perspectives to a host of problems. Throughout the course of history, technology and machines have generally amplified humanity by freeing people from ‘machine-like’ tasks.


For many companies and researchers focused on A.I. and machine learning—as well as science fiction buffs—the end-game is a future filled with autonomous, possibly sentient, robots. But somewhere between today and that fantastical future are incredible opportunities for us to build technologies that simply enhance our daily lives, allow us to ‘work’ collaboratively with technology and encourage us to put our human capital to its highest and best use (and I’m not talking about the ‘Singularity’). While fun to imagine, the future doesn’t have to be sci-fi.  


If you’re a banker, should you worry about job security because you may no longer have to key a customer’s information into a system? If you’re a risk manager, should you worry because machines can recognize patterns better and more quickly in disparate and dense datasets? Or an investment analyst that no longer has to live in spreadsheets? To quote Eric Shinseki, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.


For every optimist, there is a person who hates change.


I suppose some could view this kind of manual labor as a type of job security, but I’d argue nobody aspires to that. Imagine your five-year-old-self showing up to school on career day dressed as a data entry clerk. While traditional blue-collar and white-collar ‘human’ roles are likely to change drastically in the coming years, the possibilities that this kind of change implies should excite even the staunchest of modern-day Luddites.”


Entry-level Jobs of the Future?

While no one that knows me would ever accuse me of being an optimist, I am looking forward to a future where I can ask a digital research assistant to help me gather initial research, and maybe even take a crack at the outline or first draft.


Alexa? Download all the latest research on rising global concerns over consumer debt levels and default rates to a folder labeled Popping the 2018 Consumer Debt Bubble. Summarize and annotate. And please conduct a sentiment analysis on statements from central bankers over the past three months, globally. Flag any related articles or research with a contrarian perspective and sort by region.


However, I can’t help but also wonder what entry-level jobs will look like in that future. Or what a future might be without jobs.


I began my career as an entry-level analyst at a fund of funds. I was responsible for reading and reporting on thousands of prospectuses, monthly/quarterly letters, portfolio holdings reports, etc., etc., and updating our fund manager database. Grunt work. But that grunt work was my introduction to economics, analysis, and asset management. It’s the only reason I have any sense of where to begin when I’m researching financial topics to write about. It’s also exactly the kind of position I imagine technology is capable of replacing—if not now, very soon.


In my opinion, let the debate rage on. The debate itself is more important than the side you choose. Because, while debate won’t slow technology’s advance or control the number and types of jobs technology eventually replaces, it will help us to better understand and be prepared for this fast-approaching future.