As any student of literature knows, the three basic types of conflicts in fiction are "man against man," "man against nature," and "man against himself." But in the business world, the conflict more often is about "man against machine."
Many a school kid gets his or her introduction to "man against machine" conflict in the classic American folk tale of John Henry versus the steam drill. The story centers on former slave John Henry, who after the Civil War went to work for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad as a steel-driver. Part of a team of men who cleared the path for the railroad, Henry spent his days driving steel wedges into rock, which were then filled with explosives to lay the path. In a version of the story by S.E. Schlosser, Henry is described as "a mighty man, the strongest and most powerful working the rails." Revered by his co-workers, Henry was said to be able to do the work of three, spending days driving "holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks" with his 14-pound sledge hammer.
One day, a salesman appeared at the work site promoting a new steam-powered driver he claimed could out-drill any man. There were, of course, disbelievers. His claim was tested by a contest between Henry and the newfangled steam-powered driver. The site foreman ran the steam driver. Henry pulled out two gigantic 20-pound sledges and went to work furiously pounding away alongside the contraption. When the dust settled, Henry had drilled two seven-foot holes to the machine's one nine-foot hole. Man beat machine, but tragically, Henry collapsed and died of exhaustion.
The next day, and every day of the project thereafter, the steam-powered drill went to work. As time passed, more machines came on line, and fewer workers were needed. The new technology had supplanted humans.
Since then, the story has been repeated time and again, with new and increasingly sophisticated technologies taking over jobs once performed by people. With the advent of the computer age in the 1950s, the trend jumped into high gear.
Even so, the claims made by two Oxford University researchers this fall were stunning. Most notable was their contention that in the relatively short term (say, 40 to 50 years), as many as 50 percent of all existing jobs in the U.S. could be vulnerable to replacement by computers. Their report, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? notes that, "while people have been concerned at technology's ability to supplant human workers for hundreds of years, modern advances in computing technology mean that whole occupations may soon be made obsolete."
The study, conducted by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, looked at nearly 700 existing U.S. occupations and found that nearly one-half are at risk of obsolescence. The authors argue that the next generation of big data-driven computers will take the place of low-skilled workers across myriad industries.
This time around, even jobs traditionally considered to be at low risk of automation may be sucked into the vortex—including some related to the business of delivering goods. "Recent technological progress is likely to have significant consequences for logistics and transportation," Osborne says. Take long-haul trucking, for example. While a truck driver's job may seem safe in the short term, advanced sensing technologies and computing capabilities constitute a very real threat down the road. "The Google driverless car is now licensed to drive in the state of Nevada," says Osborne. "It won't be too long until such machines are able to substitute for human drivers in a range of occupations."
Perhaps this means the seemingly never-ending motor carrier driver shortage will finally be resolved. But this much at least is clear. As the technology hurtles forward, American workers who underestimate the power of the machine risk going the way of the mighty John Henry.