Select Page

London is known for its taxis. Walk around town for a few minutes and you’ll see them everywhere. Try to imagine the automotive progeny from a drunken orgy of a Rolls Royce, a hearse, and a school bus. The result would be the hackney carriage – commonly called a Black Cab – a licensed taxicab of London. With typical British tongue-in-cheekiness they aren’t always black.

But what is special about the black cabs of London isn’t their curious form. It’s what they have inside that makes them marvelous. Specifically, their drivers.

Black cab drivers train to such a high standard that their examination (ominously dubbed The Knowledge) is thought to be one of the hardest tests in the world to complete. Tougher than the California Bar Exam? Probably. Than the Master Sommelier test in that movie that tries to make wine tasting cool? Most likely. It may even be harder than a trial by combat against the Mountain from Game of Thrones.

A London cab driver driving in the rain
I choose Driver of Black Cab as my Champion.

To pass The Knowledge you must first develop a photographic memory of all the 25,000 streets of London. This includes not only the street names, intersections, and where they go, but also the one-ways, dead-ends, and where you need to exit and enter at various points on traffic circles.

Next, you must master optimal travel routes in some of the worst traffic in the world for any given time of day. Without a road atlas, traffic alerts, or Google Maps. And the style under pressure of James Bond.

Finally, add in committing another 20,000 landmarks and points of interest and their locations to memory. This includes not only the usual tourist spots, but every restaurant, every pub, sometimes even laundromats and flower stands. All without guided navigation or the Internet. Good luck with that.

A cabbie-in-waiting may take 5 to 10 years to master The Knowledge. Nearly 70% drop out before they finish and hopefully go on to pursue something easier like a residency in neurosurgery.

The difficulty of becoming a London taxi driver is so mentally taxing that scientific studies have shown a marked increase in the grey matter of their brains. A London taxi driver is one of the highest trained professionals in the world. By some metrics one of the smartest humans on the planet.

Two doctors looking unamused standing in front of a brain scan
We’ve seen your brain. We’re not impressed.

I’m terrible at navigating. I grew up in the farmlands of northern Indiana; as a result I’ve never had to develop navigation skills. Town was that way. I could count all the roads I had to memorize on my hands; all of them lined up in a perfect numeric grid. By the time I moved to Chicago, the navigation revolution was well under way.

I’ve called Chicago my home the better part of a decade and I still have the directional sense of a tourist that gets lost on Michigan Avenue. And this is in a city with streets as straight and predictable as the square mile grids that I grew up with (thank you, Catherine O’Leary’s Cow!).

Satellite view of a grid of country roads
The only streets I can remember without my phone.

But fly me to London, give me a smartphone with Google Maps and a car to drive, and I’ll take you from Heathrow to White Hart Lane like a boss. I’ll even give you the option of taking M25 or Circular Road if you have a preference for the views of Colne Valley or the shopping center at Brent Cross. Both routes are looking about the same time-wise as I write this.

I’ve never driven in the UK. I’ve only been to London once. But my smartphone lets me transform into an expert on London driving in seconds. If you were to put me in competition with the best London cabbie, I’ll lose every time. But I’ll get you to your destination a few minutes later. And I’ve never driven in the city before in my life.

London cabbies are much smarter than I am. They have a memory that I can only dream of possessing. They, as some would put it, have legitimate mad skills. The ability to memorize 50,000 spatial points of reference and calculate in your head an optimal travel route between them isn’t something that humans need to be good at anymore. It’s an amazing feat. One you can be proud of and brag about to your mum. Something computers only got good enough to do a few years ago.

But today a smartphone can do it quicker and more precisely than the best human. Unlike the London cabbies who approach the limits of what a human brain can process, smartphones are getting better algorithms, faster processing, and bigger data sets to work from every day. Our brains can’t keep up.

A hand holding an iPhone
Meet your new brain. Now detachable! With chamfered edges!

There are still plenty of reasons for you to take a black cab around London. Maybe you want some personalized advice from the mouth of an expert instead of browsing thousands of reviews on TripAdvisor. Maybe you prefer or require the spacious environment and unique design of the London black cab. Maybe you want to stick it to big business and give your money directly to another human being and small business owner. But to hire a black cab solely to get from point A to point B in a reasonable time is no longer one of them.

The taxi, in some form, has been around for a few thousand years. In India, the palanquin, a covered sedan chair, was used to transport riders around town as early as 250BC. Taxis will probably still be around for the foreseeable future. Folks with enough disposable income generally like to have other people personally take them places. As humans we have a bias towards trusting other humans. All things being equal, we prefer the guidance of a fellow human being to computer generated messages on a screen.

Painting of a palanquin
The original taxi.

But the playing field isn’t equal. Technology has ensured that it will never be again. You, armed with a smartphone and access to an automobile you may not even own, can now replace the primary duty of a veteran black cab driver with their decade of grueling training. You may not be quite as good. And you may know nothing about the city. But you can provide the same basic level of transportation service at a fraction of the cost. There will always be a price sensitive customer that will choose to ride with you.

This is why Uber and other ride sharing services are killing the taxi. Uber isn’t better at getting you to your destination. Uber has figured out how to transform a highly trained individual into an app.

Here’s where this should hit home. Your training and expertise may no longer be necessary. We are living in a world where software, algorithms, and machines are besting their most able human counterparts.

What do you do to earn a living that is so special a machine can’t do a good chunk of it? I look at the things that I’m particularly good at. I’m not convinced an app couldn’t do many of them better, quicker, or with less complaining.

Researchers predict that as many as 47% of U.S. jobs will be automated within the next 20 years. Flip a coin. That’s could be the chance of your job no longer existing. Even if your job doesn’t disappear, you’re going to be competing against millions of other highly motivated workers wondering why they can’t do your job, but better (or at least cheaper).

A robot making a hamburger
Unlike you unsanitary meatbags, I know medium rare means exactly 142.551°F. Beep. Boop.

So what are you going to do about it? The future is coming towards you like a freight train. Today it’s cab drivers. Tomorrow it may be your livelihood.

How to not be replaced by an app in 3 easy steps

[easy-tweet tweet=”Flip a coin. That’s could be the chance of your job no longer existing.” user=”henkler”]

Step 1 – Admit change is going to happen in your career.

In the early 1800’s, if you were employed, chances are you were a farmer. Nearly 80% of the labor force used to work in agriculture. Today, that number is less than 2%. Revolutions in this sector of the economy have made today’s farmer so effective that less than 2 in every 100 people provide us with everything that we put on our plates. Farmers are awesome.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Nearly 80% of the labor force used to work in agriculture. Today, that number is less than 2%.”]

Our economy is vastly more diversified than it was 200 years ago. That being said, every industry is going through its own technological revolution.

Yours isn’t any different. Taking the blinders off and seeing this is the first step.

A black and white photo of a taxi driver
I’ve joined the professional VR drone racing circuit.

Let’s take a trip back in time

1986 – Less than 1 in 10 households own a computer. If you did, you probably used it to play Oregon Trail (yes, that link lets you play it in your browser. Goodbye productivity.). My computer only displayed two colors – green and black.
1996 – 20% of American adults had access to this thing called The Internet. Most of them were secretly browsing ASCII nudes on USENET. Signing in to AOL via a modem connected to their phone line. You probably didn’t have an email address unless you were a college student.
2006 – If you had a cell phone, it was a flip phone. The original iPhone was still a year from being announced. And it wouldn’t allow you to install any apps.

In 30 years we’ve went from the computer being a toy for privileged nerds to everyone carrying a supercomputer connected to the knowledge of the entire human race in their pocket. Mostly for looking at videos of cats scared of cucumbers or for yelling at strangers.

An animated image of a cat being scared by two cucumbers on the floor

Step 2 – Start replacing yourself today

This sounds like voluntarily putting your job on the chopping block. Why would you want to replace what you do with a machine? Isn’t that the opposite of what [John Henry]( and his steel-driving hammer would have wanted?

Because it’s going to happen soon anyway. John Henry was still replaced by that steam-powered hammer after dying of a heart attack. Parts of your job are so menial a Commodore 64 could do them with enough bytes left over to play Maniac Mansion (another link to the original playable game. Goodbye week). You know what they are. You probably don’t like doing them either. Step up. Be the one that admits these tasks aren’t worth your employer paying you to do.

[easy-tweet tweet=”John Henry was still replaced by that steam-powered hammer after dying of a heart attack.”]

Work with your boss and your technology or process improvement department to brainstorm ways these tasks could be automated. You know the ins and outs of them more than anybody. You may even have an Excel spreadsheet loaded with macros to automate part of them already.

Those who lead productive change in the workforce are the ones who get promoted. The ones that keep their jobs when everyone else is laid off. The ones that other departments try to poach. The ones recruiters keep calling even though their LinkedIn profile clearly does not say looking for new opportunities. The ones who can speak about their accomplishments in a job interview in the unlikely chance they find themselves out of work.

Lead the charge to automate a tedious part of your job today. You may ruffle a few feathers, but you’ll be seen as an invaluable leader instead of discardable dead weight when automation is eventually forced on your department or industry.

Step 3 – Make learning your constant

The age of the average company in the S&P 500 is only 18 years. You can’t count on the company you work for today being around when you retire. Your entire industry may no longer exist. You may be working for the equivalent of a horse drawn carriage manufacturer. The future is murky. Unlike the impending layoffs for taxi drivers, you may not see your career evaporating until it is too late.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Your industry may no longer exist. You may be working for the equivalent of a horse drawn carriage manufacturer.”]

We always overestimate how much our job will change in a year. We underestimate how much it will change in a decade. Ten years is a long time. Ten years ago Uber, the iPhone, and drones didn’t even exist. Now we have flying robots we control with a supercomputer in our pocket.

When I was a kid, my mom would kick me off the computer to do something more useful. I’d be in the midst of programming a new computer game only to be unceremoniously shooed outdoors so I could amuse myself breaking rocks like a convicted felon with a hammer. For the record – I broke a lot of rocks. I’m still a bit proud of that.

A sweaty man breaking rocks with a sledgehammer
What I thought I looked like.

My parents thought that computers were educational toys. Not something you could make a living from. At the time they were completely right. I was one of two people from my school that went on to study computer science. My guidance counselor didn’t have computer programmer in his big book of careers. One job aptitude test told me I should work in maintenance on a nuclear submarine (I would have been one badass underwater janitor). I’m glad I stuck with my passion and continued learning what I thought was fun.

[easy-tweet tweet=”My parents thought that computers were educational toys. Not something you could make a living from.”]

Becoming a lifelong learner is the only way to ensure your relevance in the seas of change.

Pick a skill to develop that interests you. Learn to suck at it for a while until you get good. Maybe it won’t make you any money. Or maybe it is the beginning of a fantastic new career. The act of learning a new skill is at the core of what makes you unique as a human. You know what can’t do that? An app.