Just as human capabilities evolved when homo sapiens made the leap from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to farming, they will adapt to a new world in which technology looks after the mundane elements of work and frees us up to explore our real potential.
Human interaction can trump the march of machines
Conventional wisdom paints a gloomy picture for the future of the average worker. Improved communications and technology has effectively eliminated borders and resulted in widespread outsourcing, which has culled jobs in many developed countries. Already, some of those outsourced jobs are being lost to automation in developing countries: China is rapidly re-tooling its factories with robots in order to keep costs down.
Meanwhile, fears are growing that skilled and complex jobs could face a similar fate. Many back office tasks, including in finance and treasury, are expected to be automated and even occupations such as law, medicine and journalism – which five years ago were considered impregnable – are now seen as threatened by technology. A large proportion of the jobs created in recent decades, such as in logistics, could soon be replaced by drones and autonomous vehicles.
According to the World Bank, roughly 57% of jobs in rich OECD countries could be replaced by automation. Tesla’s Elon Musk is far from alone in describing artificial intelligence (AI) as an “existential threat".
The precise speed with which new technologies are adopted around the world is hard to predict. Yet the direction of travel seems certain: machines will replace many jobs in the medium-term - not the science-fiction future.
However, automation and the application of other new technologies will not necessarily result in mass unemployment. Instead, it could open up new opportunities for workers and create occupations that are more flexible, satisfying and intellectually stimulating. It could also provide new ways to learn that spread knowledge wider than ever before and increase job opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, the future could herald a new wave of jobs that take advantage of human beings’ unique abilities in a way that many jobs failed to in past decades.
“Don't believe the hype - Google AlphaGo's gaming successes (it beat a human at a complex game 10 years earlier than expected) and (AI system) IBM Watson will not usher in a dystopian triumph of machines over humans,” write Craig Le Clair and J.P. Gownder of tech research firm Forrester. “Instead, the white-collar workers of the future will collaborate with cognitive capability.”
What can humans offer?
Amid excited talk about the huge potential of technology such as AI or robotics it is important to remember why humans are different to machines. Our ingenuity has enabled us to prosper across millennia, moving from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to farming and from industrialisation to the virtual age. “Humans dominate planet Earth,” notes historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “We've spread to every continent, and our actions determine the fate of other animals (and possibly Earth itself).”
Let’s not forget that it’s humans that created AI and other technological advances. Our cognitive suppleness has enabled us to advance more rapidly than biological evolution alone would allow. By using our brains in new ways, we are therefore likely to survive the challenges created by AI.
In his seminal 2005 book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, author Daniel Pink explained that we were moving from the information age to a conceptual age where workers that are guided by the right hemisphere of the brain – which governs functions associated with creativity such as inventiveness, empathy, meaning and ‘seeing the big picture’ - will prosper.
To flourish in this age, we'll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilities with aptitudes that are ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch’, according to Pink. “High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn't know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathise, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”
What skills will be valuable?
As the world becomes ever more technologically driven, more employees with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills will be required: someone will have to program all the machines and interfaces that take over human jobs. Given the current shortage of such skills, governments need to ensure education systems are capable of producing the coders of the future. The efforts of organisations such as the STEM Re-entry Task Force, which works with the Society of Women Engineers in the US to re-integrate older workers, will also be invaluable, as will re-training: people are likely to have multiple careers over their lifetimes.
However, as Pink describes above, individuals with a non-STEM background, in arts and humanities for example, will also be critical in the conceptual age. In many developed countries – especially where further education is paid for by students – the proportion of students studying such subjects has fallen sharply since the financial crisis. A report by Gali Halevi and Judit Bar-Ilan of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University shows a “constant decline in the monetary expenditure dedicated to arts and humanities activities since 2009” according to data from the US, the EU and many other developed and leading developing countries.
If we are to avoid mass unemployment, more value may need to be placed on arts than in the past. That way individuals can learn the social skills needed to connect with others in this new technological age.
How humans can help tech – and tech can help humans
There’s no avoiding technology – all jobs in the future will incorporate it in some form. However, technology is also creating many jobs that use ‘right brain’ skills and adding valuable capabilities to existing creative jobs.
For example, algorithms used by Apple, Spotify and other music streaming services to help users navigate almost unlimited musical choice were based on existing listening habits. However, it turned out people like to listen to a wider range of music that their existing collection suggests. To fix this problem, Apple – and others – have hired what Apple CEO Tim Cook describes as “very rare and hard to find” aficionados who curate playlists across various genres. As Michael Bhaskar, author of Curation: The Power of Selection notes, curation, defined as “selecting and arranging to add value”, is becoming “a core part of propositions we don’t usually associate with the word”.
Other more workaday jobs will also continue to rely on unique human abilities. For example, hairdressing is a complex blend of social interaction, manual skill, contextualisation (is this haircut fashionable or suitable?) and judgement. It is likely to be many decades before a machine can master and combine such a variety of skills. Similarly, while many people now use sports apps to monitor their physical fitness, the motivational benefits of a personal trainer are hard to beat. And given the myriad factors that influence human behaviour, therapists and care assistants are likely to be in business for many years.
At the same time, there doesn’t have to be a binary choice between technology and people. SciSports is a Dutch company that has created software to analyse footballers’ performance. It can help clubs buy the right players, play them in the right way and understand how the ball moves during a game. There’s no suggestion that analysis supplants a manager’s skill. As Gerrit Jan van Ahee, chief technical officer of SciSports notes, managers just “utilise the data to spot certain aspects they might have missed.” Analytics and peer company benchmarking are also helping treasury staff to add value by enhancing – rather than undermining – their core skills.
A new relationship
The future of work is likely to be symbiotic: technology will help us to achieve more; and we will remain vital to help technology function effectively. IBM’s Watson is “designed to augment human intelligence, and work side-by-side with human experts” to enhance decision-making rather than replace people, according to Christopher Padilla at IBM’s government and regulatory affairs unit. Such capabilities are likely to become invaluable in operations, sales, finance, treasury and other corporate functions.
Nor will technology have the upper hand. Steven Van Belleghem, author of When Digital Becomes Human, notes that the digital relationship between companies and consumers will eventually become a commodity. To keep winning the hearts of customers, “the human part of [the] business [needs to] becomes the differentiating factor in the relationship.” While the quantity of human-human interaction may decrease, the relative importance and relevance of human-human interaction will sharply increase.
Economically, new technology could improve productivity growth, which has been sluggish in many countries, while also freeing up individuals for a life of more varied and challenging work. In short, the future could offera more rewarding working life that is better suited to our unique cognitive abilities and our capacity for innovation.
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