For better or worse, tech innovation is on course to replace us all one day. Economists have been grappling with this since machinery started replacing human labor during the Industrial Revolution. But recently, the chatter seems to have taken on a fevered pitch, with market analysts predicting catastrophic job losses in the short term as technology continues to evolve at an astounding pace.
So much so, in fact, that at the rate we are going — a multibillion-dollar business — the likes of Google or Facebook could potentially one day be conceived and helmed by a single individual. Sound far-fetched? Not really. I give it another 50 or 60 years tops.
Out With The Old
The necessity of hiring an army of specialized employees to help keep a company ticking is on its way out. It’s happening all around you: at the supermarket, where cashiers are slowly being replaced by automatic checkouts, and on the streets, where taxi drivers are being phased out by Uber contractors who, in turn, will be replaced by self-driving cars. (Elon Musk would point to this as yet more evidence of the AI Apocalypse moving forward at full throttle.)
In the past, it was difficult, if not impossible, to grab a slice of the market from big, established corporations if you were just a small startup. That’s no longer the case. Just look at WhatsApp. For decades, AOL had the instant messaging market covered. Then Skype was launched, followed by Google Chat in relatively quick succession. Shortly after, in 2009, a tiny startup called WhatsApp — developed by two former Yahoo! employees — entered the scene and subsequently upended the IM universe.
The company was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion and is considered one of the most popular messaging apps of all time with more than a billion users as of February 2016. But how long will it be before the next best thing is born? A quick Google search pulls up a dozen or so articles prophesying about what’s on the verge of replacing WhatsApp in 2017 or why instant messaging is so last century. And this isn’t just confined to the crowded IM field. As many market analysts note: No sector will be able to outrun technological advances.
My point is that it is becoming easier and easier to create a successful business without the blessing of industry giants or, for that matter, much manpower.
Party Of One
By taking multiple technologies and putting them together, I believe one person will be all that is needed to create a multibillion-dollar company in the not-too-distant future. Put another way: Machines are slowly but surely plucking out the middlemen (and women), leaving analysts scrambling to forecast how exactly this will impact the global labor force within a generation. You won’t need people to achieve wealth as the tech revolution marches forward; you’ll be able to do it all by yourself by outsourcing and integrating technologies.
I call this "integrating up." But you may know it as artificial intelligence, automation or machine-learning, which allows computers to essentially learn on their own, leading us down a path of no return and taking with it millions of jobs. As the head of my own mobile and web development shop, many of my clients have already approached me about the possibilities of integrating such technologies into their own projects.
Forecasting The Future
I checked in with a couple of experts in this field who tell me that, while AI and machine-learning haven’t completely disrupted all professional spheres yet, that’s likely to change within the next two decades.
“With machine-learning, the more quality data we have, the smarter systems become. It is self‐reinforcing, allowing companies to support more users and customers at a rate not imaginable a few years ago,” says Marcos Voltolini, lead engineer at one of our client companies, Hoodline, a location- and behavior-driven content platform that runs inside of popular apps and services like Uber. “Machine-learning already impacts how people do their jobs in many sectors, and over the next 10 years, it will touch the whole economy. What we saw in the last 20 years with software transforming and creating new industries, we will see with AI and machine-learning.”
Today, there are multibillion-dollar companies that rely on huge teams of 500-plus people, simply to reply, for example, to customer emails, notes Andrea Zanda, head of machine learning at Hoodline.
“Integrating machine-learning into these types of processes will be relatively simple and generate huge value,” Zanda explains.
In a LinkedIn post, Bradford Cross, a partner at DCVC, writes, "2017 will also be the year of breakout successes from a handful of vertically-oriented AI startups solving full-stack industry problems that require subject matter expertise, unique data, and a product that uses AI to deliver its core value proposition."
Now, this is not to say there won’t be new opportunities, but the fact of the matter is jobs will disappear and many people will be forced to reinvent their careers. Software engineers, for example, look like they will (sadly) have the same fate as Uber drivers. But I see this also as an opportunity for all those who are displaced to become innovators and find a way to think differently and change the world.