I must first point out that I don’t think Strive Masiyiwa literally meant that the issue of AI changing the jobs market significantly is nonsense. However, he wrote it that way, most probably in an attempt to make his language colourful. That is the point though: a person in as influential a position as he is particularly as a tech entrepreneur, must be careful to always say what he means and mean what he says.
Masiyiwa wrote on his Facebook blog:
Don’t listen to all this nonsense about AI taking people’s jobs! Hundreds of millions of new types of jobs will be created, just like with other every technology before. AI is the the biggest technology we have ever had:; it bigger than all those technologies put together.
Emphasis is Techzim writers’s
Not so simple an issue
Strive Masiyiwa is both 80% right and 100% wrong. Yes there is probably going to be a net increase of jobs due to AI and other tech trends. However, this is in the long term horizon. The immediate and medium term period is not going to be easy.
The impact of technology is already being felt in job markets around the world including in Africa. Bank branches for example are closing down to give a cliche example. Standard Bank in South Africa is closing down more than 90 branches and a lot of families affected would not describe this development as nonsense.
Previous comparable changes tell the story
The industrial revolution that happened in Great Britain and other parts of the Western hemisphere in the late nineteenth century is quite telling. We owe a lot of our modern day comforts and standard of living to this epoch. However, none of us would have wanted to live at that time in that part of the world.
The change was brutal. Machines were taking over in the factories and with that transition, the gap between the haves and have nots widened. New skills were needed but people could not acquire them fast enough. Even so, the new jobs introduced on the market could not compare to the number of jobs that were being lost. Those massive economic and social changes contributed to the quest to conquer and colonise other parts of the world.
This is not too dissimilar to the current shifts within the so called 4th industrial revolution. This time even the esteemed ‘white collar’ jobs are being made redundant. The changes are occurring all across the globe including developed countries.
Let’s use one of the most important class of jobs in the USA as an example: truck driving. The American Trucking Association estimates that there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US and that the whole industry has about 8.7 million people meaning one in every 15 workers in America is in the trucking business. At the moment there is even a shortage of drivers! They need 90 000 drivers a year for the next 10 years… or so they think…
Now self driving car technology has advanced so much that such cars are already on the road. How can the US economy absorb one in every fifteen workers as technology creeps in to take over those jobs? Mind you, workers from other diverse fields will also be facing the exact same predicament. Now consider our local economies here in Africa…
So yes Strive Masiyiwa is right that there will probably be a net increase in jobs but this is not immediate and there is going to be a generations that will live through a very harsh world before that happens.
The issue of acquisition of new skills that Masiyiwa glossed over is not as trivial as that. How do you re-orient such a huge percentage of the workforce in a short period of time? It’s easy to say, “hey people need to acquire new skills,” but this is not as easy. It’s useful that Masiyiwa is doing his bit with Muzinda as he mentions in the same post. However, this doesn’t mean he is right to tell you and I to not even listen to this conversation. Actually, we need to be participating in this conversation more.
AI and the broader tech trends are bringing such intricate impact that it took Mark Zuckerberg and Yuval Noah Harari more than 90 minutes discussing some of the issues and at the end of it Mark Zuckerberg could still not understand what Harari was saying.
Why Masiyiwa’s language is reckless
First, the issue of changes in the job market should not be treated with dismissive language ever, especially by people we generally consider to know the issues. We are in a situation where the politicians who are leading our nation states have no idea the impact tech is having on the availability and nature of employment.
These politicians need to be guided so they lead an agenda that prepares us for the imminent future. Some of them are so scared that extreme nationalism is on the rise across the world. Countries are building literal walls around themselves in a bid to preserve employment for their nationals.
Some politicians have an appreciation of the massive changes happening and they are looking at ‘those who know’ like Strive Masiyiwa to measure it out for them. This is why Strive has to be very careful.
Secondly, Strive Masiyiwa’s Facebook page is followed by millions of people mostly young Africans who look up to him and treat everything he says as absolute gospel. It will be disastrous if some of these young folks take his words out of context and thus do not engage in this important conversation let alone prepare themselves for the changes. The man actually said: do not (even) listen (to this conversation at all).
Third: that tech is introducing better jobs is not necessarily true especially in the immediate term. Right now there is a global debate about how to introduce safety nets in the gig economy dominated by companies/services like Uber or in Masiyiwa and Zimbabwe’s case: Vaya. These jobs do not have benefits normally associated with the traditional jobs they are removing like health cover etc.
Lastly, times of change are highly volatile times. Change is not very easy for a lot of people to process. Just think about the widespread burning of Uber cars when the service entered the South African market. The language that leaders use should be accommodative of the high paranoia that change introduces instead of being dismissive of it.
I sincerely believe Strive Masiyiwa did not mean to communicate negatively on this issue. Nevertheless, he may have. Unfortunately, carrying the level of important influence such as he does also means the burden of zero privilege in saying anything, anyhow.