No Choice Between Humans and Machines

There’s no rational choice between humans and machines. Given the same skill set, a rational business owner must choose the machine every time.

Machines Cost Less Over Time

Generally speaking, machines improve their speed over time, especially when the hardware is outsourced. Two years ago, a single vCPU server with 30 GB of disk space and 1 TB of transfer cost about $30/month. Today, the same vCPU (which is two generations faster) and hardware costs $5/month. That represents an 83% decrease in costs.

Two years ago according to SHRM Magazine, healthcare costs represented 7.6% of a company’s operating budget. This year, SHRM expects it to be around 8.1% of a company’s operating budget. That represents a 6.5% increase in costs.

Which would you invest in most? The option with radically increasing performance and decreasing costs, or the option with marginally increasing performance and increasing costs?

Machines Improve Exponentially

Over time, the software in machines gets better. I work with a ton of code, much of it open-source, and it only gets better. A task that took an hour a year ago takes 10 minutes now. A task that took 30 steps a year ago now takes 10 steps.

New innovations constantly change the code and the work to be better. Five years ago, deep learning was out of reach for most people. Today, even a child can set up a basic deep learning system by following proven instructions.

Humans tend not to improve exponentially over time. They make, at best, linear improvements – and more often than not, hit diminishing returns much faster.

What Should Humans Do?

To remain employable, let’s revisit the beginning of this post. “Given the same skill set” is the key – if what we do is also something machines are capable of doing in a practical, cost-effective manner, our job will vanish. Thus, we must focus on the skill sets machines cannot do. What are machines bad at?

Today, machines are bad at:

  • Judgement
  • Empathy
  • Multi-disciplinary understanding
  • True creation
  • Modeling anything that doesn’t exist
  • Predicting anything that hasn’t happened before

Over time, machines will close these gaps, but because these are difficult, complex cognitive tasks, it will be years, if not decades, before machines can seamlessly do them all, affordably. The biggest tech companies will build these capabilities first, but they will diffuse to the rest of the business world slowly.

Consider this your golden rule for what to focus on in your career in the coming years:

If you can do it with a template today, a machine will do it without you tomorrow.

Focus on work that has no repetition, that has no template, that has little to no predictability, that has never been done before.

Incidentally, even if there were no machines, this rule would still create a high likelihood of career success. Follow it no matter what the future holds, and you stand a better chance of succeeding than others.


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