Economic Singularity: The Gods and the Useless

Published on Monday, September 12, 2016 By Brad Wardell In Life, the Universe and Everything

imageI don’t like sounding like chicken little. Nevertheless, the sky is falling.

For those of you who don’t know me, I run one of the oldest independent software companies in the world. My specialty for the past 20 years has been in AI. It is my job to research, evaluate trends and invest accordingly to stay ahead of the curve. And I am here to tell you that the sky is falling.

It is automation. It is inevitable. It is irresistible. And if you think that automation always creates new opportunities look back to horses. Technology made them more useful too…for a time. Now it’s our turn and in this Facebook post I’m going to walk you through, in plain terms, why I think the sky is falling.

I’m not going to try to persuade you. I’m just going to put out the data. I suspect anyone reading this is intelligent enough to reach their own conclusions whether they agree with my assessment or not.

Before I begin, I want you to refer to this page: This is the Bureau of Labor statistics. It’s the government’s site that tracks what people are employed in.

To summarize we Americans work primarily in these areas:

1. Factory work (8%)

2. Construction (4%)

3. Retail (10%)

4. Transportation (3%)

5. Business Services (13%)

6. Healthcare (12%)

Next, I would like to quote you this statistic: “The maximum unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.”

The sum of the percentages I give above is 50%. You be the judge on what percentage of the areas I am going to discuss below will likely be out of a job in the near future.

Like I said, my day job is to evaluate technology and try to predict where it’s going to go next. And with that, I am telling you the automation revolution isn’t happening soon. It’s happening right now.

Amazon Prime

Do you use Amazon Prime? It’s pretty great right? How are they able to do it so cheaply? It’s because it’s largely automated now. Over the past few years, Amazon has been quietly laying off thousands of employees and replacing them with machines.

Amazon currently employs over 200,000 people, most of whom will be out of a job in less than five years. Right now, you go to their website, you order something. That signals a AGV to go over and pick it up in the warehouse which then takes it over to another AGV (automated guided vehicle) that in turn takes it over to the auto packager which in turn sends it to be sorted and packaged.

I’m not talking about some future technology either. Did you get something from Amazon Prime recently? Look at the box you received. You will see an MSI code and a Code-128 code (very similar) along with a Datamatrix code (a box with graphical blotches). Right now, some of this is still handled by a person. But this will soon be completely automated.

Right now, the Code 128 code is used by UPS or Fed Ex staff (people) to load trucks and get them to you. But this is not going to last much longer. The transportation industry is already in process of being automated. You don’t hear much on this publicly because no one wants to talk about it. But this isn’t a 10 or 20 year away thing. This transformation is happening right now.

Products and goods will soon be transported to you through autonomous vehicles. I’m not talking about drones. That’ll happen too but that’s a distraction. I mean that UPS trucks and Fed Ex trucks will soon be autonomous. Loaded at the warehouse by machines and transported to you by AFVs (autonomous freight vehicles).

And even if you think “how will they get up to my doorstep” remember most shipments occur from business to business who have their own loading docks and warehouses. Moving stuff from point A to point B is a huge part of our employment.


Retail, where a lot of people now work, is going to be hit soonest, hardest and most obviously. We are familiar with self-checkouts but that’s really not that big of a deal. It’s the stocking that is going to go away and you won’t even notice. Walmart, Target, you name it, will quietly and not-so-gradually replace their stock people with machines. Read a bar code, go to the proper location in the store and place it. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Chain restaurants? The only reason why McDonalds and Burger King haven’t automated already is the relatively low minimum wage. But that’s going away. Kiosks will replace the order taking and the food preparation will be handled by machines. And machines in 2016, already do voice recognition better than most humans for the drive through (that’s something I never would have thought possible even 5 years ago). And people will be happy for this because it’ll be more convenient and the results more consistent. They’ll never “fuck you at the drive through” because the order will be perfect every time.

What about office jobs? They’re safe right? No. Again, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about some “20 years from now” thing. I am telling you that this automation revolution is happening as you read this. It’s not something to prepare for in the future. It’s already upon us. And with that in mind, Walmart just announced that it is cutting 7,000 office jobs.

This was a week ago.

These are administrative jobs. Accounting jobs. All those jobs that involve paperwork, inventory management, producing invoices, handling payroll. Do these jobs sound familiar? They’re not going away in the future. They’re going away right now. And it’s accelerating.

Today, you walk into a Walmart and pick up a can of soup off the shelf. That soup was placed there by a person. You probably still go to a person to check it out because you have a bunch of stuff and it’s still a pain to do self-checkout. Nevertheless, everything you bought is automatically deducted from Walmart’s inventory. The acquisition of that item and its purchase doesn’t require people anymore so it was automated.

But relatively soon, every item, from food to your clothes, will have a tiny passive RFID tag in it. You’ll simply walk through a checkout and everything will be deducted automatically (for those with a NFC device like an iPhone or an Android phone). There will still be a person handling stuff for old people. But most people will naturally prefer to take their cart full of stuff through the RFID scanner and have it handled automatically.

Ironically, the service is likely to get better because they’ll probably soon have auto-baggers so you won’t even have to bag your own stuff anymore. But that’s probably around 7 (2023) years away from becoming mainstream. You’ll have RFID tagging sooner than that.

If you’re feeling stressed and want to go to the doctor, well, they’re going to be automated away too soon. And this will be a good thing for everyone. Today’s doctors will become more focused on dealing with patients’ needs while the machines handle the diagnosing and prescription writing.

You, reading this right now, when was the last time you went to the doctor not knowing what you already had? You probably just needed the prescription and had to wait. The machines, networked with each other across the world and able to sample billions of people’s anonymous data will make Dr. House look like an amateur and prescribe you with what you need vastly faster than having to wait for the doctor.

However, this won’t be good news for a lot of people in the health industry. Your doctor today with the thriving practice will be fine. He or she will save up and buy these diagnostic machines that will handle the vast majority of cases he or she currently handles. But those next generation doctors? They’re in for a rough time. Those in the medical profession can comment below and explain the problem a lot better than I can.

What about lawyers? They’re screwed. As someone who routinely gets sued (intellectual property is a mine field), I have a lot of experience with lawyers. The most expensive part, by far, is discovery. This is the part where each party sifts through the other’s sides stuff to determine what bullshit to put into their motions to convince a jury that their narrative of the case is the correct one. 99% of that time is wasted. Machines could handle that 99%.

It is unlikely that there will be such a thing as a paralegal in 20 years. They’ll go the way of the gas station attendant.

Now, I’m not suggesting all these jobs are going to be gone in 5 years or even 20 years. Not all of them. But a lot of them. And unlike in the past, there’s no job for these people to go to. There’s no “training” for a new job because this time, the machines aren’t creating a new type of job in their wake, they are simply replacing the existing jobs without creating a new one.

We are not ready

We are not ready for this. We are oblivious now and we will remain oblivious until it’s far too late for our society to adapt carefully.

People will continue to be oblivious even as they watch their malls close down just like people shrugged when their bookstores went away.

They’ll continue to be oblivious when their neighbor’s kid loses their job at the coffee shop because there’s a machine that makes the perfect Mocha Latte every single time.

They’ll still ignore it even as their sister’s husband loses his job at DHL (the world’s largest logistic company).

They’ll only notice when their job at the local dentist’s office handling appointments and other office duties suddenly, without notice, disappears because Dr. Benning, such a great guy, has bought a Wavenet Office bot that can call patients to make appointments, reschedule, and handle all the tasks they previously did.

And what about the unemployed? Think that they’ll just raise up a mob and take on the 5% of the population who owns the means of production now? Think again. The one area automation is already doing very well is security.

The new uber class (calling them rich isn’t even the right term at that stage) will be way ahead of the mob. They’ll have machines to protect their holdings, homes and families from the rabble. So those who think “they’ll have to do something for everyone else or they’ll be a revolution” think again. Don’t assume a universal basic income is a definite.


What we do as a civilization, will define my generation. I pray we figure it out. Nothing scares me more than a future of split between the Gods and the Useless.

Further reading:

Economic Singularity