Opinionista Steven Boykey Sidley 10 October 2017

The big lie from all political parties – jobs. What jobs?

A new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that new technologies and automation will threaten, if not destroy, over 30% of jobs in the developed world by 2030. This is not the first research paper to reach similar conclusions. Think about this for a moment – we are talking about hundreds of millions of jobs disappearing into thin air, attended by inevitable social collapse and misery. So what does that mean for SA? It means that all political parties are lying. The prospects for jobs growth are zero, and the prospects for further job losses are 100%.

The sudden and astonishing ascendancy of artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning, which have lingered on the sidelines of academia since the 1950s, are now overshadowing just about every future economic indicator, and will disrupt and decimate the prospect of employment growth, all within our lifetimes. It is anybody’s guess as to whether this sort of wrenching change will be too fast for governments and societies to digest. I suspect not. We have no time to retrain citizens, this is upon us now.

The progression of these edge technologies have moved at dizzying speed from chess-playing software and car-painting robots and bad language translators to have now spread across the entire fabric of world economies. An example – professional drivers (such as truckers, delivery drivers and most taxi drivers) will be gone in the US by 2030. That is about 4-million jobs, and a loss of $200-billion in GDP. The blockchain (the technology on which Bitcoin is based) is going to scour out the expensive and thick layer of middlemen and facilitators that insert themselves in almost every commercial transaction between two parties.

There is a Japanese robot that can flip 360 perfect hamburgers an hour, which is 10 times faster than the fastest human. Mining operations are heading towards zero-labour as artificially intelligent robotics improves, as is agriculture. Even doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professional classes will see their protected towers crumble. (Don’t even get me started on the creative industries – a film whose script was entirely generated by an algorithm is being submitted to the Sundance Film Festival this year.)

This list is endless, and every day there is news about another startling labour-saving application of these advanced technologies. It makes for heated dinner party conversation. Ethicists foam at the mouth. Journalists and novelists prognosticate. Dystopians cackle at the coming collapse of civilisations. Utopians look the other way, hoping for regulation or calmer heads or the primacy of social consciences.

These chattering heads strike me as so much chaff. This stuff is already here, and more terrifyingly, the rate of innovation is accelerating. What used to be the singular and protected province of Silicon Valley and American genius has now leaked out, with countries such as China and India and Japan aggressively pushing at the edges of labour reduction and machine dominance.

So what does this mean for us? The smart analytic wonks that try to wrestle the coming changes to the ground are pretty much in agreement about one thing. There will be only two protections against a future of unemployment. The first is deep and abiding skills in those areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that is still out of reach by the machine monarchies that are assembling their forces. The second is a Universal Basic Income (a subject for another day).

I hate to state the obvious here, but successive governments and unions in South Africa have wilfully decimated South African education so that it now lies exhausted at the bottom of the pack. Try to swallow this – the World Economic Forum recently listed South Africa last in world in mathematics and science education, and third last in the world in general education. Below Benin. Let me say that again – LAST in science and maths. That is a breathtaking anti-achievement. The only skills that protect against technology-driven labour destruction, and we are the single most unprepared country in the world.

So the next time you hear the ANC (or the EFF or the DA) talk about all of the jobs they will create, keep this in mind. They are either lying, or just woefully ignorant. DM


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