No matter what your job is, it’s likely that a machine will someday do it better. And, for many American workers, that day may come sooner than later.
According to a paper published by researchers at Ball State University, roughly half of the jobs American workers perform could be automated in the near future; the study also found low-income work as the category most susceptible to automation.
While change is inevitable in the more physical professions, it’s increasingly apparent that knowledge-based jobs — those requiring some special skills or expertise — are equally at risk. In fact, some of those positions are already being replaced.
The value of hard labor
As a college professor, I spend most of my days reading, writing and thinking about theoretical topics. It often feels like my fingers are the only parts of me that get any exercise, so I like to set aside time on the weekends to work in my yard.
I recently dedicated an entire day to whipping my front yard into shape. I grunted and groaned as I hauled dirt, hacked away at vines, chopped down trees and shrubs, and mulched. Aside from offering a great workout, those hours of grueling manual chores allowed my mind to wander in sometimes unexpected ways. In the midst of this exhausting work, I started to think about automation.
I certainly enjoy working in the fresh air, but I’ll admit it would be nice to have someone else — or something else — handle the backbreaking labor for me. I could always pay a company to take care of it, but I would spend as much time making sure the job was done right as I would doing it myself.
Another option: I could invest some capital into advanced tools capable of handling the job: A few thousand dollars would buy a Honda Miimo, which is like a Roomba for your yard. Fire it up, and you can cut your grass without breaking a sweat.
So, the message is clear: Instead of our paying for someone else’s labor — or paying with our own sweat equity — we can let machines do the hard work for us. The economy employs engineers and entrepreneurs to build these advanced machines, and the upshot is that consumers need not turn to experts to tackle jobs around the house. In fact, Recode has reported that using these machines is more affordable than ever.
But there’s a problem with this thinking, in that Americans tend to view the elimination of jobs as a negative. One reason for those eliminated jobs — automation — even feels like the end of the world as we know it. Picture sci-fi movies and scenes of robots wiping out the human race.
In reality, though, the evolution of machines will actually lead to a more prosperous society. While Amazon has started to use thousands of robots to help deal with menial tasks in its warehouses across the country, Quartz reported that the company is still hiring tens of thousands of new workers every quarter.
So, highly educated workers will have jobs developing these machines, and less skilled workers will be able to use those machines to boost their productivity. We’ll get more output per labor unit, forever liberating people from humdrum drudgery. Sounds good to me.
Bringing disruption to any industry
Rather than a threat, then, the rise of more intelligent machines represents an opportunity to disrupt the economic status quo through automation. Here are three strategies for entrepreneurs who want to shake things up by replacing existing processes with novel new ideas:
1. Think in terms of value rather than cost.
Entrepreneurs are successful when they’re able to find new ways of doing things. To successfully replace production processes, you must aim to create value rather than minimize or manage costs. You can’t disrupt an industry simply by doing something “a little cheaper” than competitors — that’s neither a rationale for starting a new business nor a sustainable business advantage, as others will simply do the same thing.
Instead, aim to develop completely new ways of doing things. Some people assume companies such as Amazon are successful because they’re able to undercut competitors on price. Yet Amazon has achieved 25 percent year-over-year growth, according to the Motley Fool, because it has created an entirely new way of delivering goods and services to consumers.
Likewise, think about who gets the value you create. Entrepreneurs serve themselves by serving others. You profit only if your customers are satisfied, and you have to know who they are if you want to keep them happy. If you’re able to identify a market for an innovative product or service and deliver value, people will pay for it. Cost doesn’t matter as long as the value you provide is greater.
2. Invent your problem.
Entrepreneurs have a tendency to think they need to solve a problem to be successful. That perspective leads many would-be entrepreneurs to seek a problem lacking a solution, but this is a shortsighted approach. If you want to actually disrupt a market, you need to invent a problem that doesn’t yet exist.
Apple sold more than 211 million iPhones last year, and the iPhone undoubtedly solves plenty of problems on a daily basis. But when Steve Jobs first introduced the product, it didn’t solve a problem that anyone could identify. People didn’t mind a lack of the internet in their pockets back in 2007 — it wasn’t a problem at that point. Instead, Apple changed the way people behaved by offering unprecedented value. A decade later, most people would be absolutely lost without their iPhone.
3. Ignore what’s already being done.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of examining existing products and processes and trying to brainstorm ways to improve upon them. But instead of creating value, this approach tends to focus more on minimizing costs. When you think like this, you’re entering the arena of incumbent firms and trying to beat them at their own game.
Do you really think people in those organizations haven’t thought about how to improve production processes? Of course they have. Your advantage lies in creating new value, which requires you to focus less on what other companies are doing and more on what could be done instead.
When Arianna Huffington wanted to differentiate the Huffington Post from other media outlets, she knew she had to do something truly unique. So, she mastered the art of search engine optimization before anyone else was even thinking about it. While other publishers guessed at reader preferences, the Huffington Post team used data-driven methodology to give readers exactly what they wanted. It’s no coincidence that the site remains a media behemoth.
Automation isn’t a new phenomenon, and it doesn’t signal the end of work. Elon Musk discussed automation during the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai, arguing that there are “fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.” But even as Musk pronounced a future where robots will take our jobs, he predicted that this increased automation will help create abundance in our society.
The takeaway here is that each innovation increases our labor productivity, meaning we can do more work more efficiently, reaching our desired standard of living along the way. For entrepreneurs, the latest wave of automation presents new opportunities to disrupt the economy and create a brighter future for everyone. And that doesn’t sound like any sci-fi movie to me.