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Robots welding in a production line
Robots welding in a production line

Robot-Proofing Your Career, Peter Thiel’s Way

Jay Richards and Larry L. Linenschmidt continue their discussion of what has changed—and what won't change—when AI disrupts the workplace

In “Prepare for AI, but don’t panic—Part 2,Larry L. Linenschmidt and Jay Richards continued their discussion of AI and the job market. Part 1 is here (and here with partial transcription).

The big question is, will machines take over human jobs. So far that hasn’t really happened. But what does the future hold? This second episode of two looks into Jay Richards’ book, The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, for some background and forecasts.

Richards emphasized that the factory is not an age-old idea; it is a blip in history. But the jobs that get automated may not be the ones we think of as “merely manual” (some surprises there).

Partial transcript:

12:40 | Which types of jobs will machines disrupt?

Jay Richards: We will have to deal with the problem of disruption. Many things we are now doing will be done — and will be done better — by machines. Now that’s the story of human history. All recorded history is the history of us building machines that do things better. It’s just that now they’ll be doing things we thought only humans can do. And yes, there are some kinds of manual labor jobs that are going to become obsolete. But, as I argue in the book, very often, when we think about the loss of jobs, we are thinking of repetitive assembly-line jobs in a factory environment. Those jobs are going to almost all go away and the reason is that they’re very easily automated.

It’s important to remember though that those jobs only existed in the twentieth century. There have only been factories, centralized factories, for maybe three hundred years and the assembly line was actually invented by Henry Ford in the early 20th century. We treat the factory as an eternal verity, as something humans have always had to have. It is a particular type of work that is probably an artifact of the twentieth century and it will be disappearing. But there are other kinds of work, in the skilled trades, for example, in which you have to develop a skill as a carpenter or a sculptor—machines aren’t doing that kind of stuff any time soon. In fact, we don’t have a robot, like they have in the Jetsons, that can actually do housework. It involves complex modeling movement and that’s a really tough problem to solve.

So what people should be thinking about is which jobs are likely to go the way of the dodo bird? They are mental and physical jobs that are highly routine and repetitive that can be reduced to machine learning or to some kind of routine activity.

The kinds of jobs that are not going to go the way of the dodo bird are both manual and mental jobs that involve, as I have said a number of times, creativity—but also complex modeling, know-how, and movement. So, if you’re doing landscaping, we’re not going to have landscaping robots any time soon. It’s just not something to worry about. One the other hand, if you spend time as an Uber driver, you should probably worry about the day when automated can take over for you because that’s already starting to happen. My advice to people is to always be adaptable, always be thinking about the new skills you can develop so that when your particular way of working becomes obsolete, you will be able to pivot to do something else.

15:30 | Peter Thiel’s Zero to One

Larry L. Linenschmidt You talked about Peter Thiel’s comment that we can go to infinity with an idea. You wrote that sometimes we humans imagine an idea that takes us from zero to one. That’s what sets us apart.

Jay Richards That’s exactly right. That’s Peter Theil’s metaphor in Zero to One. His basic point is that businesses and entrepreneurs can sometimes tweak ideas that someone has already thought. That’s the “one to n” [n = any natural number], taking something that’s already been percolating in some way. But every so often we go from zero—from nothing—to one, to something.

Now we don’t do that as God does it, obviously; God is, as Thomas Aquinas. said, the only one who can give being to new things that did not exist. On the other hand, God creates things and then leaves it to us to transform it in certain ways. God creates sand but he didn’t create fiber optic cables and computer chips. He gave us the capacity to take sand and silica and transform it into the material substrate in the technology to do other things. That represents our way of going from zero to one, meaning unveiling new things based on the physical universe God has created.

If you believe that human beings are created in the image of God, you will look for new ways of doing that. You’re going to be optimistic about the possibility of our doing that in the future, just as we have in the past. If, on the other hand, you just think that we are a machine made of meat that we’re the product of a bumbling, blind evolutionary process that eventually became conscious, then you will probably think that there is no reason we can’t design a machine that can do that. So anyway, this whole debate about man and machine, about artificial intelligence comes out of a sort of metaphysical or theological question about: How do you understand the human person? Are we free agents, hybrids of the material and the spiritual, created in the image of a creative God or are we just machines made of matter. And, depending on where you come down on that, you are going to end up with a different view of the future and of the economy and the technology.

Note: You can read or listen to an excerpt from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One at his publisher Random House Penguin’s website here. Peter Thiel addressed the COSM Technology Summit in October, warning that legendary SiliconValley is “losing its touch.”

17:38 | Will technology replace us?

Larry L. Linenschmidt: One of the quotes you pulled out in the book was from the Wall Street Journal is, “exponential feedback between technology and intelligence is humanity’s accelerator.” You wrote, “To miss this is to miss the key fact of our economy. Grasp this and you have reason for hope.”

Jay Richards: That’s exactly right because we tend to think of all this technology as replacing what we are doing. They replace only the old way of doing what we’re doing. True people who used to need private physical can get it online but people who didn’t use to be able to afford physical trainers can get it effectively free online. That’s because the technology allows that to happen. So rather than thinking of the technology as replacing us, think of it as sort of our extension in time and space, our entrepreneurial prostheses which extend ourselves and our creativity into different domains.

Note: The videos may be free but most fitness equipment, gear, and wear isn’t free. There is a global boom in both interest and sales of fitness tech. It is attributed in part to growing obesity worldwide—itself an outcome of higher-tech farming methods that produce abundant food cheaply. Another driver of this trend is increasing longevity, itself due in large part to advances in medical technology. The new longevity sees seniors “flooding into gyms” rather than rocking chairs. Most of these markets barely existed decades ago.

19:15 | Prepare, don’t panic

Larry L. Linenschmidt: [Jay, we’re getting close to the end of our program and we’ve covered a lot of ground, from Genesis to AI. I think that’s a pretty long journey, and a little virtue mixed in too. Is there anything else you might like our listeners to know, from your own reflections?

Jay Richards: If I were to boil all this down to a single piece of advice, it would be this: Prepare, don’t panic. Yes, there is going to be disruption and things are changing quickly and some things are changing more quickly than they ever have. The cost is something to be concerned about, but it’s also a huge opportunity. If you are a student or you have kids who are in high school or college, get them thinking about continuous education. If they are constantly learning new skills and cultivating new opportunities and virtues, I am convinced that there will be more opportunities than ever,. There will be hundreds of things we will be able to do in the future. Prepare, get ready for massive change, but don’t panic that the machines are going to take over.

For the first part of the discussion, see: Technology kills jobs, creates new ones. On this week’s podcast, Jay Richards looks at the way new jobs have historically grown from the turmoil around the deaths of obsolete ones.
Despite the continued march of technological change in recent years, the American employment picture has been bright, though many remain dissatisfied with their current circumstances or prospects.

For more from Silicon Valley great Peter Thiel, see Billionaire tech entrepreneur says Silicon Valley is losing its touch Peter Thiel also compared universities today to the Catholic Church at its worst. About the Big Tech companies, he says, “The story is not that they have done a lot of bad things but that they have not done enough good things. That remains the core challenge of Silicon Valley.”

Here are some more pro tips from Jay Richards on AI-proofing your job:

Students, don’t let smart machines disrupt your future Three ways you can avoid life in Mom’s basement and the job pouring coffee.

Creative freedom, not robots, is the future of work. In an information economy, there will be a place where the human person is at the very center


Maybe the robot will do you a favor and snatch your job. The historical pattern is that drudgery gets automated, not creativity

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Robot-Proofing Your Career, Peter Thiel’s Way