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Paul Appleby

Should We Fear The Future Of Work?

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We live in a time that owes its prosperity to Industrial Revolutions: from electricity to vaccines, mass production to satellite technology, refrigeration to computers, antibiotics to aviation, automobiles to the internet, and a litany more. The standard of living, quality of healthcare, and life expectancy found across much of the developed world could never have been anticipated in the pre-industrial era.

future of work

That said, whilst there have been undeniable improvements in all those areas, there are many industries, cities and communities that have suffered as each of these innovations in turn changed the nature of work: shrinking or shutting down industries, requiring new skill sets, and demanding lifestyle changes.

Now, in order for society to reap the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where we are facing automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and the rise of robots, we have the opportunity, and in fact, the responsibility, to take action to ensure that a new class of workers or communities do not have to suffer the same fate.

There has been lots of noise in the media about the implications of these technologies and what these mean to the future of work. In my opinion, this revolution and these technologies will almost certainly result in seismic shifts in the nature of work. The discussion, however, should not be one based on fear, but one based on optimism and intent, as we redefine the nature of work in this era.

Most notably, Bill Gates mounted the argument that we should, in fact, put a tax on robots, which would presumably help fund programs to ameliorate the resulting dislocation and unemployment. Perhaps we should, therefore, put a tax on Mr. Gates and all the software Microsoft has ever created, because in each and every case, a machine is doing the work that was once done by a human.

Let me expand on that topic. If we go back to the First Industrial Revolution, there was an outcry in society and the press that machines were replacing the jobs that hard-working men and women used to do. Machines would create societal upheaval and huge loss of employment. As famed Transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau succinctly put it in his magnum opus, Walden, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The rhetoric in the market today is exactly the same, albeit less poetic.

The concern that machines cause large-scale unemployment is worth commenting on. On the one hand it was true, and on the other, it was not.

In certain industries, and in particular, in industries that were tied to a specific geography, large-scale unemployment did result. But the press and public commentary at the time also didn’t take into account the new forms of work that would be created by these new technologies. So as a consequence, whilst there was societal upheaval in certain industries and regions, in a broader sense, we saw economic expansion and no increase in the overall rate of unemployment.

If we wind the clock forward to the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions, exactly the same scenarios played out. New forms of machines automated work previously done by humans, there was a great hue and cry, and new jobs were then created as a result of the technological advances.

Take the introduction of the ATM 50-odd years ago, for instance. The public and the media railed against the machine, demanding that banks continue to offer human teller services. Banks relented. Fast-forward to today, however, and you find customers irritated when they have to access a physical bank instead of walking up to an ATM or using a mobile app. In fact, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor, the ATM freed human bankers up for “forging relationships with customers, solving problems, and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans, and investments.

In the early ‘90s, this debate took the form of “globalization.” Capitalism and its demands for the free movement of goods and services across the globe created winners and losers, but this was deemed an acceptable trade-off for a growing economy, so long as we invested in reskilling, education, and a strong social safety net. Our failure to do so is reflected in the current political upheaval and anti-immigrant sentiment across the United States and Europe.

As former Stanford economist and distinguished external research faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute, W Brian Arthur, has it, “the current transfer of jobs from the physical to the virtual economy is a different sort of offshoring, not to a foreign country but to a virtual one.” Here we are in Industry 4.0, the Extreme Data Economy, facing robotics, automation, and AI, and there is no doubt that these technologies will cause significant dislocation and disruption in certain industries and job roles.

Just take for example professional drivers. In the US alone, there are millions of workers whose job function is primarily driving, whether for deliveries, taxi services, ridesharing or shipping, and over 10 million workers and their families whose incomes are dependent on the incomes of drivers. As we move towards a future enabled by AI and machine learning (ML), and the ultimate proliferation of autonomous vehicles by perhaps 2030, there is no doubt that there will be huge disruption and dislocation caused for this sector of the workforce.

The response, however, should not be that we apply a tax to the technologies that are enabling this transformation, because there will be huge benefits to society that result. For starters, autonomous vehicles will lower pollution because the vast majority will be electric vehicles (EVs). There will be far fewer, if any, motor-vehicle accidents, resulting in a huge reduction in costs to the US economy, and more importantly, in loss of life.

But lest we dismiss these employment concerns as the plight of workers without college or graduate degrees, consider the following: doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers may also be at risk. Robots are already working as surgeons’ assistants, recently outperforming humans in a test to repair a pig’s intestine. At the top-ranked medical school and medical center, UCSF, a robot has filled and dispensed prescriptions received by computers for years, making no errors in 350,000 orders. And in the legal realm, software programs can scan documents to find words or concepts that used to take lawyers hundreds of hours of document review. Developments to be viewed with as much thrill as trepidation: safer surgeries, more accurate prescriptions, and lower legal costs. All add up to higher quality of life for the citizens of the future.

Unlike societies, economies, and businesses that existed in the prior Industrial Revolutions, however, we need to be proactive in how we mitigate and minimize the impact of these transformational changes on those people who would be disadvantaged by them.

So what does this look like? Be proactive in identifying the job roles and functions that will be impacted by identifying the unique skills that each class of workers has. Identify roles that either exist or will be created as a result of these new technologies. Look at education, retraining, and upskilling for these future forms of work.

There are already great examples of organizations and companies that are taking the initiative to reskill or upskill workers for this new era. Women Who Code takes a multi-pronged approach, providing free technical study groups in multiple coding languages, offering career development, and directly connecting women with technologists and tech investors, among others. Vets in Tech is a non-profit that helps military veterans translate their skills into civilian technology work, offering programs for education as well as employment.

Governments from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia are creating public-private partnerships to do the same. Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative gives every Singaporean, aged 25 and up, a S$500 credit to pay for training at universities and through massive open online courses (MOOCs), paired with generous subsidies of up to 90% for those aged 40 and above, at a cost of S$600m a year.

However, it’s not only about retraining workers; it’s about how we prepare the next generation for this digital era. We need to look more urgently at how to equip them for the roles that will exist or be created as a result of these transformational technologies, from AI enabled by accelerated parallel processing to ML enabled by GPU databases, as opposed to educating and preparing them for the prior era of industrialization and process manufacturing.

This is where schools such as Design Tech High School in Redwood City, California are transforming the way our children are taught. Whilst delivering against the basic requirements of the common core curriculum, they’re doing so in an environment that promotes design thinking and project-based learning. MySTEM Academy in Pittsburgh has likewise worked with over 2,000 children K-8 at camp and after-school programs in all things STEM, computer programming, and robotics. In Washington State, home to Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, the Technology Access Foundation works to improve access to STEM and tech fields for students of color and underrepresented communities, offering a training program for teachers, as well as running after-school programs for students.

Whether at the local, national or international level, these are the skills we need to give our citizens and children, as the workers of the future, to prepare them for this post-industrial, post-process manufacturing era.

It is not mechanization, artificial intelligence or robots that we should fear, but rather, our own failure to prepare for a future that most certainly depends on them.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Forbes on 4/19/2018

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