Editor’s note: This is the first in a series focusing on “Digital Obsolescence” from Tom Snyder, executive director of RIoT and a regular columnist for WRAL TechWire. Snyder is a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, is the newest columnist to join TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. His column “Datafication Nation” is part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.


RALEIGH –  In the 1950s, MIT professor Robert M Solow developed a mathematical model for economic growth. He was able to demonstrate that more than 50% of economic growth was the result of technological advancement. The balance is due to growth in labor and capital. In 1987 Solow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for this groundbreaking work.

I have had the privilege to speak at and attend several AI focused events in the past few weeks.  A major theme at these events has been concern about how AI will disrupt jobs, replacing humans with data analytics and automation. This is a concern that often arises when emerging technology reaches the mainstream.

The standard answer to this age-old worry is that while some jobs will disappear, many more new jobs will be created that were obsoleted. After all, this is the trend that we saw during each of the first three Industrial Revolutions through human history.

At the recent Converge South event, local investor David Gardner explained how when the telephone replaced the telegraph, it ended the careers of Morse code translators and telegraph operators but created new jobs in logging to cut down telephone poles, mining to produce copper wire, manufacturing to build phones and switchboard operators connect people to one another. Total jobs were overall net positive.

What is perhaps new today is that AI is a form of automation that threatens white collar jobs. Historically, most technology-based job disruption impacted factory workers, laborers and sectors that are primarily measured by productivity versus sectors measured by innovation or educational attainment. Generative AI tools are expected to create disruptions in medicine, law and engineering – fields that historically have grown through technical advancement, rather than shrunk.

AI & Entrepreneurship

Last week, I got a chance to briefly meet Walter Parkes and to hear him give a talk at Guilford College during an AI and Entrepreneurship event that I was part of. Parkes is the screenwriter of Wargames and Sneakers, two films that explored the hazards and benefits of computer technologies that were becoming mainstream at the time of their respective premiers. Wargames created such a stir that Ronald Reagan called his top military aides together to screen the movie. He tasked them to create a strategy for how the US would defend the nuclear arsenal against cyber attack.

Wargames has resurfaced in the public debate, this time as we think about how much control to give AI, and if some jobs should remain specifically held by humans. Parkes was confronted with the question about how AI might eliminate Hollywood jobs. He gave a nice response which I will paraphrase here.

When the digital camera became mainstream, there were cries in the streets that photographers would all lose their jobs. Society would lose the art and craft of taking good photos and developing them properly. In retrospect, what actually happened is that the technology simply raised the bar.  Everyone now had a tool that made them a much better photographer, able to capture photos we might not have been able to take before. But the industry itself has thrived, and the most talented photographers are now able to capture even better images than they could before.

Parkes posits the same will hold true for screenwriters. Anyone will be able to create AI-generated remixes of scripts, songs and books, based on available data. But truly new, high quality works will remain the remixes that humans create from their own, personally lived experiences – this time augmented by the power of AI to improve research quality, verification accuracy and other aspects of the craft.

It has been 35 years since Solow was awarded the Nobel Prize. The world knows, and math and analytics prove that technology advancement creates at least 50% of economic growth. I retain faith that AI will create numerous new jobs, even as it eliminates others.

Next week, I’ll delve into what I think some of those new jobs will look like – and also offer a cautionary thought, as this particular technology shift provides a new twist.