The rise of bots, algorithms and automation has prompted a debate about the future of the global economy. Some foresee a dystopia where all jobs are replaced by computers. Others point out that it's made people's lives easier and will democratize services once limited to the elite.
The commodification of once exclusive services is happening across numerous sectors, from healthcare to human resources to wealth management.
The Future of Jobs
Bill Gates recently gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute where he said that businesses and government need to prepare for a future where software and robots take people's jobs.
"Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses: it's progressing. Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set," he said. "Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model."
In January, The Economist published "The Future of Jobs: The Onrushing Wave," an article comparing this wave of automation to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. In that case, industrialization actually created more employment opportunities.
Nevertheless, the article intoned, "some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently."
There is no doubt that automation is transforming the labor markets, but many of those changes are positive. Algorithms can save people time, money, and worry.
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This is a big deal, because it means anyone — even people who cannot afford professional investment advice — can benefit from high-quality financial expertise, and trust the advice that they get.
Traditional wealth managers won't be automated out of existence, just as services like TurboTax have not made accountants obsolete. Rather, it means consumers have more choices, and can decide whether to rely on software, humans, or a combination of the two.
Oscar is a startup using automation to challenge the "staid business" of health insurance. The company bills itself as a "new kind of health insurance company that is using technology to make insurance simple, intuitive, and human."
Oscar's site is far easier to navigate than traditional insurance sites — you simply type in your ailment and it will pull up doctors and facilities you can visit. As with investment advice, the goal is to use technology to create a more transparent, efficient alternative to the status quo.
Likewise, SeeChange Health offers businesses "flexible, self-administered health plans" as well as preventative medical software to serve its clients as a sort of early warning system.
Human resources departments are notorious for their mountains of paperwork, spreadsheets, and complicated IT systems that require people just to manage them. Zenefits is working to automate all that "administrative crap" out of existence.
The startup has built a system that guides employees through the process of filling out hiring paperwork, signing up for payroll, figuring out taxes and deductions, enrolling in benefits and insurance plans and tracking paid time off. It digitizes all the information and keeps it in one place, where employees can make their own changes.
This doesn't mean that HR people won't have jobs anymore, but it does means they can focus on more complicated, high-value work than the nitty-gritty of HR.
The Second Machine Age
The effects of automation vary from industry to industry. And they're not just impacting desk jobs. Soon we may see automatically driving trucks and delivery vehicles, and speak with automated customer service representatives — without even realizing there is no human behind the voice.
The three examples above are just a few of the ways in which software can be empowering. These systems can help lower costs, heighten transparency, improve accuracy and efficiency, and make data-driven advice more accessible to individuals as well as businesses. This trend isn't about replacing jobs. It's about challenging broken industries and giving people alternatives to flawed and exhausted norms. The future is here.