As a futurist, I’m often asked about an inevitable “robot uprising.” I’m asked, “What happens when robots and artificial intelligence (AI) start taking the jobs?” and “What’s the impact on brands?”
Surprisingly, when the robots come, the low-income sector will likely benefit most, and the middle class will complain loudest. And — though different people will have different feelings about it — the affluent likely remain unscathed.
Let’s look at what the uprising really means.
AI Reality Check 101
We’ve all heard about the exponential growth and adoption of technology. For the moment, humans remain largely in control — but this will change. A primary driver will be the physical size of computer chips, likely approaching near zero in five years. (In 2010, the average computer chip was 22 nanometers across. Now, it’s 14. By 2020, it will be about 5 nanometers, or 12 atoms across.)
Smaller chips mean most things in our world will be turned into a computer. Today we’re hearing about the Internet of Things—where “objects, animals or people are able to transfer data over a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.” Our world will be totally immersed in computational power. We’ll be living in a computer, surrounded by intelligence everywhere. And the affluent early adopters will see this world soonest.
The computational power available in 10 years will allow us to develop more revolutionary, subtle, much larger “megacities.” Greener, more efficient, computer-enabled infrastructure will be the norm. The city itself will become a computer, which we can control and regulate. It’s easy to imagine how the most affluent will be first to enjoy these opportunities.
Is Past Really Prologue?
Cities are a great example of how technology changes things. In the 1790s, agriculture comprised about 90% of America’s jobs. When agriculture became mechanized, millions of those jobs were eliminated. People migrated to cities. Unskilled, they found new careers in factories, then in service industries, building the economies of those cities.
How will the AI revolution be similar to that transitional era? Likely, it’s going to end much better. First, because robots and AI make a much broader range of things cheaper — not only food. And because they do increasingly sophisticated things, the jobs AI “targets” will be very different.
When an entrepreneur can sell materials and resources for more than they cost, business happens. And when some of those resources are labor, new jobs are created. Job killing only happens when robots and AI are cheaper than labor. Then, the entrepreneur builds or buys a robot instead of hiring someone. The result? A cheaper final product.
Low Income, High Potential and The Middle
Consider this: if someone’s industrial job is lost to a robot, maybe they start waiting tables or working in daycare. If, as a result of cost-saving robots, costs decline by 90%, what happens to jobs where robots aren’t desirable? Waitressing compensation could increase exponentially. And daycare could pay 10 times what it does now — topping what surgeons take home.
We’ll still want humans in certain roles. The affluent will demand it. And this new category of behaviors will create a whole new marketing dynamic.
Where this gets uncomfortable is the impact on wealth distribution — the middle class likely takes the largest hit in the coming revolution. The difference between their current job and the next-best job is significantly larger than for less-skilled workers. College professors, for instance, will have a significant drop. The role of the intellectual will be significantly displaced in the new economy. And no, that’s not great.
But ultimately, like the agricultural revolution, technology will massively benefit today’s lower-income community, as well as the affluent.
Brand New World
So what’s the impact for brands? In the long term, new industries, consumers and categories will be born from the rise of the machines. Prepare for a middle-class revolution to an era of content — songs, films, novels, art, blogs, podcasts, etc., eloquently espousing and defending soon-to-be-forgotten values of middle-class prestige.
The practical short-term impact on marketing? AI and robots will become not just an important new tool, but an important new audience. AI will increasingly be both targets and surrogates for messaging. And just as your email spam filter has done, they will continue to be vigilant consumer guardians. So, agencies must learn to persuade machines.
Buying and selling is already programmatic. But we’ll also be selling branded components of algorithms within machine intelligence. And we’ll come to find that our clients may no longer be a “who,” but a “what.” The same will go for the consumers we are selling to.
Algorithms in the form of AI and in the shape of robots will represent the new audience.
Start learning its language.