· November 3, 2018

Following on from the last post - are there choices that can improve your personal or corporate situation under impending automation? 

Startup folks call this defensibility, the ability to maintain a market position even as new competitors enter. Kind of a flip side is Nasim Taleb’s notion of scalability, and in particular that non-scalable careers yield predictable, if unspectacular, returns in life. His canonical example is being a dentist, with something like a financial trader being the “scalable” counterpoint - a career with potential to make massively outsized returns but that is also vulnerable to outsized shocks. 

Taleb’s non-scalable careers tend to get their defensibility from their non-scalable characteristics - dentistry has technical aspects, but the human and geographic ones are key. If there is a dentist operating in an area, another is going to take that into consideration before opening a practice. 

These type of careers may well be very resilient. Geoff Hinton’s favourite automatable career, radiology, is certainly extremely tractable to computer vision approaches. However, there is a strong argument (I forget who made it!) that the transition won’t directly impact many people, due to the pace of diffusion of technology, and the normal rate of people retiring. 

Non-scalable careers are also likely to fall into the category of automation+human, where automation can benefit both individuals doing the work and owners - which in many cases are overlapping sets. 

Most people though don’t have those type of careers - their work is valuable due to their situation, and vulnerable to shocks to that system. Defensibility in this case is much more akin to the broader startup sense: exclusive access to some resource, a technical or knowledge advantage (roughly, exclusive access to an information resource), brand, or scale.