CAN WE SAVE THE FUTURE? THE FUTURE
OF WORK
CHALLENGE

Automated and autonomous technologies threaten hundreds of millions of jobs across a wider variety of sectors than ever before, but with great disruption comes great opportunity.

 

PEOPLE HAVE HELD debates about the future of work for centuries now that have always grown in intensity and urgency when society draws closer to a tipping point like a new industrial revolution – as we are again today with the arrival of the so called Forth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0.

In the past debates raged about the impact of mechanisation, mass production, and automation as the world headed towards the first, second, and then third industrial revolutions. Now that we’re headed towards the forth, which will be characterised by the adoption of cyber physical systems and new exponential technologies in the workplace, such as, but not limited to, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, and robotics, that will re-shape the future of both manual and cognitive labour, those debates are raging like never before.

On the one hand all these debates, whether they’re at the government level, or even a work group level, agree that the implications of the forth industrial revolution on tomorrow’s workforce will be monumental with reports from the White House and European Union parliament respectively stating that “ … [in the future] it is to be expected that machines will continue to reach and exceed human performance on more and more tasks,” and “ … AI and  automation will affect every strata of European society.”

So, as we near this tipping point all this prompts us to ask the questions:  What does all this mean for the future of work, and how do we prepare ourselves and our children?

In this Future of Work special feature, which is part of the 311 institute’s Future World Series, I’ll be taking a  closer look at both of those questions, lifting the hood on some of the technologies fuelling the new jobs revolution, such as the rise of new creative machines that themselves threaten over 30 million human jobs alone and over $2Trillion worth of GDP, and looking into the steps we can all take, as a society, to create a fair and prosperous future for all. As ever though what I’ll be highlighting below is just the tip of a very big iceberg so if you have any questions then, as always, feel free to reach out.

 

AUTOMATED OR AUTONOMOUS

When it comes to the future of work there are two words that keep appearing time and time again in almost every debate and report. I am of course referring to the words “Automated” and “Autonomous.”

While it goes without saying that the two are very different at the same time it’s also quite easy to muddle them up so before we proceed I think it’s worthwhile doing a quick recap to make sure we’re all on the same page, especially as when it comes to the future of work both words will be increasingly relevant, and the technologies that fuel them will become increasingly disruptive.

Autonomous systems are both automated, meaning they don’t require any human intervention in order to complete their task, and autonomous, meaning that they are capable of independently interpreting different inputs, making their own “decisions,” and then carrying out the corresponding actions or tasks in response.

An example of an autonomous system, and there are many, could be a self-driving car that takes in information about its environment and then carries out the appropriate corresponding actions to make sure its occupants get from A to B safely. Meanwhile, an example of an automated system, and again there are many, could be the automatic processing of an expense request without the need for a human to intervene or supervise it.

Needless to say, as we head into the future our workforces will be affected by both of these in different ways and will have to adapt accordingly. The rise of these systems will also mean we’ll see a significant increase in the number of decisions and transactions that are performed and processed solely by machines rather than humans – whether that’s in the form of high frequency trading bots, or again, a self-driving car that decides on your behalf when to hit the brakes.

Not only does this latter point have further implications for the workforce, including the amount of “faith and trust” we put in these systems, for better and worse, but it also has significant implications for the governments and regulators who have to try to get their collective heads around the risks associated with all these new systems on everything from ethics, reliability, safety, and transparency, as well as their impact on the economy, jobs, and even national security.

 

DEMOCRATISING ACCESS TO EXPERTISE

The fact that there are debates raging today about the impact these technologies will have on the future of work and the potential “carnage” they’ll leave in their wake, with some academics suggesting they’ll wipe out up to 50 percent of jobs, is unsurprising. What is surprising though is the lack of solutions to mitigate their impact on the workforce, which is something I’ll delve into later on, and the fact that no one has discussed the other side of the equation – the upsides. After all, with every disruptive threat there’s always a disruptive opportunity, for example, the decline of physical printed newspapers gave rise to a whole category of new jobs and opportunities, but this time round there’s a whole lot more to unpack.

On the one hand we have technologies that are helping companies automate workers and tasks, but on the other we are also reaching the point where we can use those same technologies to democratise access to expertise and skills – for you, for me, and, well, for everyone. And no matter how you slice or dice it that’s globally significant so let that sink in for a while.

Just in the same way Google democratised access to information, AI and behavioural computing will help us democratise access to expertise and skills, and I’ve plenty of examples to choose from, so let’s run through a couple of examples. I’m going to start off in the past with an example that’s close to home for many want-to-be entrepreneurs.

Back in the 1990’s if you wanted to create a website then, frankly, you had to know how to write CSS, HTML, or Java, but today in order to create your website all you need to know is how to drag blocks around a screen, upload images and text, and how to hit the publish button. Boom, you’re done. But did you have to learn CSS, HTML, or Java? No, because in this case new software and user interfaces have helped democratise website development.

Bringing the same principles forwards to today if you want to create your own art then all you need are your crappy art skills and a copy of Nvidia’s GauGAN. Draw your crappy sketch and watch GanGAN, an AI, turn that sketch into a photorealistic image.

Now, in this case we’ve democratised creating artwork and imagery. But now think about it, this new tool is great for you because it lets you create your own artwork and imagery, but it’s not so great for the artist or photographer who you’d normally have paid to create them for you. Therefore, whether you see this new tool as a disruptive opportunity or a disruptive threat depends on your point of view – and where you generate your income from.

Turning our heads now to other examples of democratising access to expertise and skills: Want to write a blog, a book, or a movie script but can’t be bothered or don’t have the skills? Well, then try OpenAI’s GPT-2 AI. Want to be a popstar? It’s just a mouse click away. Want to develop a life saving drug? Have a chat with the great guys and gals at Insilico. Want help fighting your parking ticket, need emergency housing, or just need help claiming asylum? Try DoNotPay’s Robo-Lawyer for free. Can’t write code to save your life but would like to develop a world beating app? Well, Google and Microsoft are coming to the rescue with their nascent Robo-Coders DeepCoder and Bayou. And as for developing your own AI? Well, thank Google again for that with their AutoML product that lets you easily create basic AI’s.

As you can see from just these few, but significant, examples in the future tools like these will not only help democratise access to expertise, but increasingly they’ll also let you just “dip into” and use any skill you want. Furthermore, because of these tools sophistication you won’t have to be an expert or have had training in any of these disciplines in order to create anything from contracts to software, drugs to movies, and of course websites – the systems will do all the heavy lifting for you.

All of which then leaves me with just this one question: If the same technologies that can make you and others around you redundant can be used to democratise access expertise and skills, then what does that ultimately mean for you, or for society? And in answer to that question now just imagine being able to tap into any expertise or skill that you need and figure out what that means for your own potential in the future.

So, we’ve looked at some of the upsides of these two new trends, so let’s turn our attention to the potential downsides and then onto how we protect ourselves against them.

 

BLUE COLLAR JOBS

People in blue collar jobs are no strangers to the rise of automation, having experienced its effects first hand many times over the past century or so with the rise of new automation, mechanisation, and mass manufacturing technologies. By the year 2030 though, and in spite of the fact that many blue collar workers may feel they’ve already seen automation claim the bulk of their jobs, consulting company McKinsey & Company predicts that up to 800 million global blue collar workers could be replaced by robots.

So just how is this possible, and what jobs are at greatest risk? After all, if we look at today’s modern factories, for example, where robots out number human workers multiples to one it’s difficult for most people to see how those factories could be automated any further – let alone turned into what’s increasingly known as “dark” manufacturing facilities where, as the old joke goes, the only human left standing is the one feeding the dog who’s guarding the robots …

The fact of the matter though, especially when it comes to the factory floor, is that the robo-descendants of those big hulking automatons aren’t just an incremental improvement on what came before – they’re exponentially better. And that’s before we discuss the impact that other complimentary exponential manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing or 4D printing, which both help accelerate the rate of disruption thousands fold, will have on the sector.

Built using new materials, equipped with increasingly agile, dextrous, fast, and sophisticated human-like joints and grippers, powered by new actuators, servos, and energy systems, and fuelled by sci-fi like AI, Machine Vision, and sensor systems, the new generation of hyper-connected robots, that even have a sense of touch and can feel pain, are nothing like their forebears which, in evolutionary terms, are their Neanderthal equivalents.

Furthermore, these new robots aren’t just flexing superior hardware, they’re also sporting superior “intelligence.” No longer just individual units these robots can collectively connect to the cloud and tap into the equivalent of a centralised “AI brain” that gives them a Hive Mind-like capability that, once trained to do a new task, whether it’s by learning it themselves, being trained at speed in a virtual world, or even via a human operator who is training them telepathically, means that once they’ve conquered a new task they can instantly pass that knowledge onto the rest of the collective. The result of all this is, of course, that where traditional robots were once dumb, single task automatons these new breed of robots are intelligent, adaptable, and agile multi-taskers.

Ultimately though these robotic systems, that combine both hardware and software into ostensibly a “single package,” and that encompass everything from autonomous brick laying machines and construction vehicles, as well as autonomous cleaning systems, cooking systems, mining systems, recycling systems, and, of course, manufacturing systems, means that disruption, at every level of the blue collar stack, is just getting started in earnest again.

The continued automation of blue collar jobs using technologies like those described above though is just one tip of the iceberg because when we discuss the rise of robots and robotic systems the hardware element is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Take away the hardware elements and you now have a completely different kind of robot – a software robot. Again, fuelled by some of the same connected technologies listed above, namely AI, Machine Vision, and new sensor systems, these software only robots are already showing themselves to be more than capable of either fully automating or partially automating higher level blue collar work including, but not limited to, aircraft mechanics and law enforcement officials through to project managers, and professional drivers of all kinds, from car and truck drivers to pilots and train drivers, as well as security guards, and shop staff. As you can imagine though, the list goes on and on, and the share of jobs threatened by automation of this kind will only increase over time as all of these technologies and systems develop.

 

WHITE COLLAR JOBS

It’s probably fair to say that people working in white collar jobs have, largely, not been exposed to the same type of disruption bestowed upon their blue collar cousins. After all it’s hard for a doctor, lawyer, or a musician, to be replaced by a mechanical robot, or a tractor. That said though, as I’ve talked about previously while white collar workers have little to nothing to fear from what we think of as traditional robotic systems, namely those that are hardware based, they do have a lot to worry about when it comes to the adoption and development of new software based robots and autonomous systems.

That said though if you’re a dentist or a surgeon though then over the longer term hardware based robotic systems, albeit in highly specialised forms, will disrupt your profession too as so called Robo-Surgeons learn to autonomously implant teeth into dental patients, conduct routine surgeries, and then, in time, even conduct neurosurgery. All of which is before we discuss the impact that nanobots capable of autonomously travelling through your bloodstream to identify and kill cancerous cells and perform “routine body maintenance,” or being able to use 4D print human organs, or use synthetic biology turn humans into biological supercomputers, will have on jobs in the medical field over the longer term.

Bringing the focus back to software based robots though at the moment it’s increasingly difficult to see any white collar field or job that won’t be affected by them in one way or another.

Take for example the creative industry, an industry that employs more than 325 million people globally and contributes over $6 Trillion to global GDP where we are already seeing AI’s being used to automatically and autonomously create an increasingly diverse and sophisticated array of synthetic content, from art work, games, and literature, to imagery, movies and movie scripts, music, and more. Add to this the emergence and rise of life-like digital humans and now you’re automating customer service agents, movie stars and pop stars, sales people, social media influencers, and even stunt men and women. Ouch.

It doesn’t stop there though. Thanks, ironically, to our own human ingenuity the technology behind these “creative” systems has been re-purposed to help us automate product design and innovation, and the innovation and R&D jobs that go along with it.

So far companies have used these creative machines to help them automate the development of new products that include everything from aircraft parts, battery design, cars, computer chips, fashion lines and furniture, and even the house, to anti-biotics, drugs and vaccines, lunar rovers and rocket engines. Yet again though this field, and the disruption to global jobs and society, is only just getting started.

Unlike the blue collar sector though, where in order to automate the majority of jobs we need to use a wide variety of different exponential technologies in combination, the white collar sector is going to be much more heavily impacted by the accelerated development of just two exponential technologies – AI and Machine Vision. And there are no sacred cows, even to the point that today we’re also seeing the first signs of data scientists and software developers being automatable and automated, as well as doctors, lawyers,  scientists, teachers, and so many more.

As you can see therefore and to be clear, when it comes to job automation we are nearing a new tipping point, and as the government reports state, it will affect every one of us in one way or another – whether or not we are prepared for it.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

All this disruption, to individuals and jobs, to society, and to sovereign economies, then begs the question: What can we do to protect ourselves against being impacted by all this disruption?

Well, fortunately we have some answers for you, answers that don’t just involve the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI), or so called Robot Taxes like the ones already introduced in South Korea, and you can read more about that in another of our Future World Series specials – The Future of Education and Training.

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