AI And Robots Are Taking Over: Why Developers Will Be The New Factory Workers In 15 Years

14th May, 2018 by

Yes, this is a controversial headline. But before a bunch of angry developers can throw their pitchforks at me and attack this on Hacker News, this is a nuanced topic like most things in life. While I don’t believe that every single developer job will go away in 15 years, many will.

I’m also not the only one to share this sentiment, and you can find arguments for and against this on Quora, various forum discussions, and even on Wired.

If you search on Google for AI replacing developers, you get tens of thousands of results. In fact, 1 out of every 3 developers worries that their job might be replaced by our AI robot overlords.

I’d argue that the remaining two thirds should be thinking about why they aren’t at least a little concerned about the rapid artificial intelligence developments. A little worry is a good thing. It makes you hone your craft and keeps you from becoming complacent.

To use Nassim Taleb’s metaphor in his bestselling book, Antifragile: when you become complacent in your career, you’ve basically become the turkey on Thanksgiving, and we all know what happens to the turkey. It goes without saying that you really don’t want this to happen.

So why is it that so many working professionals end up heading down this path? They go to work, do roughly the same thing day in and day out, collect their 3% cost of living raises each year, navigate office politics like champs, and get really good at going to meetings and working around corporate red tape. Essentially, they are coasting in their jobs and becoming more complacent by the day. Then one day, they wake up and realize their job has been rendered redundant. While they probably won’t be slaughtered like the aforementioned turkey, they may suddenly find themselves out of a job. While this isn’t happening to developers yet, this is already occurring across other industries. AI isn’t yet incredibly sophisticated, but it is already taking away jobs.

The jobs that are currently on the chopping block in droves are the factory workers, Walmart greeters, cashiers and any other job where 80% or more of the work involves repeatedly pushing a button (or operating heavy machinery).

No matter what the American president promises, these low-skilled jobs are going to continue to disappear at a rapid rate because robots are cheaper, more efficient and less prone to errors. People can only work so many hours in a day. When they work tired – as so many workers today do – they make mistakes, and can break expensive stuff, lose fingers, and any other manner of injury to themselves or others.

At the same time, we’re making serious strides with self-driving cars. Yes, there are lots of hurdles to overcome before everyone will have a car that drives themselves. It is not crazy to think that delivery drivers, couriers, Uber/Lyft drivers, and truckers will start being replaced by robots in the next decade. In an earlier post, we also mentioned how AI is making strides in a lot of other areas. It is creating pretty cool artwork and even writing some basic software code. It might not be the most functional or pretty code, but AI can already write it. You can either fight it or embrace it.

It has never been more dangerous to be a knowledge worker.

It is too easy for us to think that AI will only impact blue collar jobs such as factory workers. The reality is that AI is impacting just as many – if not more – white-collar roles. Data entry specialists, call center employees, telemarketers, audio transcribers, receptionists, secretaries, executive assistants, IT support specialists, QA testers and entry-level front-end developers are a handful of roles that are already being negatively impacted.

Some of these roles are being outsourced to developing countries where talent costs a lot less and others are being done by AI and robots. Our answer to all this so far has been more knowledge. We realize all of these jobs are going away, so what do we do? We create more coding boot camps, computer science classes in colleges and many coding online courses.

These courses are targeting college students and all of those whose skills are outdated and no longer in demand.

Here’s an example of one coding boot camp that is teaching former coal miners in Appalachia how to become software developers.

That’s admirable, but it is a very short-term fix to a long-term problem, a fix that doesn’t factor in basic supply and demand principles.

Taylor Pearson wrote in his book, “The End of Jobs,”
“Simple supply and demand show us that investing more in abundant resources isn’t a very good strategy. It won’t improve the outcome of the system. Spending more time in the gym won’t make you any healthier if you aren’t sleeping or eating well. However, it takes society a long time to adapt to the shift and make wise investments. What seems obvious in retrospect appears, at the time, a risky investment.”

As we get better at AI, we will systemize more of the low-level tasks that often fall to the junior developers. These are the same people who are currently in the coding boot camps and classes.

We’re building more complex software and code with fewer resources.

We’re learning to build and run more complex software with fewer developers. I think we’re going to hit a point in the not-so-distant future where the supply of junior to mid-level developers is going to far exceed the demand.

The developers who will continue to rise in their careers are the ones who are constantly leveling up their skills and embracing AI in their work. Those who stick their heads in the sand or continue to do the same or similar things day in and day out may not last so long. The most-skilled 10% of developers will rise to the top, with the rest seeing their salaries drop considerably or winding up having to find a new line of work.

Technological advances only go in one direction, and that’s forward.

Yes, there are always setbacks.. In general, technology always moves forward. Once you make progress, the tech keeps rolling on. Fighting it is a battle that you’ll always lose because of the luxury trap.

Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens:

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”

The same thing will happen with AI technology. Despite the drawbacks, it is going to make life easier for many people. Shutting down forward progress isn’t an option. The only way to avoid becoming complacent with an obsolete set of skills is to stay curious, learn new things and hone your craft.