Artificial Intelligence and Creative Destruction

I had the privilege to speak to college students recently at Wheaton College, thanks to Professor CC Chapman‘s invitation, about the role and impact of artificial intelligence on the marketing profession. During the Q&A, one of the students asked,

“Shouldn’t we be focused on creating jobs for people instead of destroying them?”

This is an insightful and challenging question. The best answer comes from macroeconomics, from an Austrian economist named Joseph Schumpeter. In his 1942 book, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy“, Schumpeter posited the idea of creative destruction. He wrote:

“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation-if I may use that biological term-that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.”

What’s happening with AI and machine learning is creative destruction, just as we’ve seen happen over the last ten thousand years of human history.

Destruction

Here are just a few examples of jobs that don’t exist in any meaningful capacity:

  • There are virtually no telephone switchboard operator jobs any more.
  • There are virtually no horse-mounted postal routes.
  • Artisanal ice cubes excluded, there are very few icehouse jobs.
  • There are very few horse-drawn carriage jobs today (mostly tourism jobs).

Creative destruction has wiped out massive categories of employment as our technology and culture have changed, and will do so, ongoing. Artificial intelligence is just the latest technology in the long line of innovation which contributes to creative destruction.

Creation

What takes the place of these jobs? New jobs. Different jobs.

  • Until 1947, there were zero jobs building microwave ovens because they didn’t exist.
  • Until 1960, there were zero professional photographers using SLR cameras because the technology was unavailable.
  • Until 1989, there were zero jobs creating websites, because Tim Berner-Lee hadn’t invented the web.
  • Until 2015, there were no jobs for licensed commercial photography drone operators because the profession only became licensed in 2015.

Today, artificial intelligence requires advanced skills in mathematics, statistics, and software development. Those requirements drop more every year; services like Node-RED give non-developer and non-statisticians drag-and-drop access to AI technologies. Projects like AutoML from Google promise even faster development of AI as the software essentially writes itself.

Like the conductor of the orchestra, we might not need to know specific details about the individual technologies as long as we understand what outcome we want to produce.

The Real Problem

The real problem in creative destruction isn’t the jobs themselves, but the humans that occupy them. How effectively will we retrain or redeploy our human talent? Could we teach coal miners to become coders?

For the most motivated and dedicated workers, the answer is yes. But we will leave behind a fair number of people who are unwilling to make significant life changes to adapt to the creative after the destruction.

For new marketing professionals entering the profession, now is the time to learn the skills of the next generation of marketers. Master quantitative skills, analytics, data science, and human-computer interaction. Learn how machines work and adapt your marketing knowledge to those ways.

Above all else, never stop learning. Never lose agility and flexibility. Change is the only constant, and with AI and machine learning becoming pervasive, change will only accelerate.

Photo credit: CC Chapman


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