Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

Are You Afraid of the Future?

Will Our Jobs Disappear (and What Should We Do about It)?

When will autonomous kitchens be mainstream?
Will autonomous and intelligent machines take over our jobs?

This was a recurring question at a series of events I spoke at in Oslo last week. Reference was constantly made to recent developments that indicate that “artificial intelligence” and other automated solutions are already outperforming human beings in many areas.

A simple “Google” search points to many reports suggesting that a significant number of jobs will soon disappear.

These “disappearing” jobs usually involve manual — or “muscle” — labor that is repetitive or dangerous. Think fast food cooks, agricultural workers, or equipment assemblers. Machines already perform such tasks more effectively and at much lower cost than humans.

But “knowledge workers” will not be spared in the new digital age. Smart machines will soon perform any work that is standardized.

In Oslo, my primary audiences were lawyers and other service providers. Undoubtedly, algorithms will replace human beings in many of the more routinized aspects of these professions.

As “new” technologies become more sophisticated, they will replace people in a large number of management and coordination positions. I am thinking of fast developments in the area of “decentralized autonomous organizations.” Also, access to vast amounts of data means that machines will soon make “better” decisions than human beings in many situations.

So, will autonomous and intelligent machines take over our jobs?

Yes. They probably will. At least, a big part of it. That much seems obvious.

But new technologies will also result in a tremendous number of new opportunities. This has been the case with all previous technological revolutions, and there is no reason to believe it will be any different this time.

And this means that the real question we all should be asking is:

What should we be doing now to prepare ourselves for a new world of intelligent machines?

Here are five strategies for maximizing the chances of success in this new world.

Coping with Digital Technologies

We shouldn’t fear technology but we cannot just sit back and relax.

Technology is growing exponentially. Digital innovations are accelerating each other. We shouldn’t focus on technologies in isolation and try to figure out if and how they disrupt currently existing jobs. That is the wrong approach.

Instead, we need to embrace a new mindset. What I learned last week is that it is better to focus on the opportunities that arise from the new digital technologies and the changes they will bring to society. For instance, the Internet of Things will offer tremendous opportunities in the legal industry (that are currently largely ignored).

Remember that technology has always disrupted humanity. The key is to cope with that disruption. And coping with the latest technology means, first, understanding that technology and, then, calmly thinking about what can be gained and not obsessing over what will be lost.

Construct a Better Future

History shows that the social effects of technological developments are not fixed in advance. The future is always open and designing a better future is the responsibility of everyone.

This means more people need to think “out of the box” to help us identify and solve the social issues of today and tomorrow. Creative thinking is one of the most important (but neglected) skills in a digital age.

Collaborate with Machines

And in being creative and building this better future, the focus should not be on “man versus machine” man but on “man living with machine.” Technology has reached a stage where we must work together with machines in designing and constructing our new reality.

We won’t have to deal with many of the daily things that occupy us now — the “nonsense” of everyday life if you like. Instead, we need to build new collaborative relationships with machines that enable us to develop new knowledge and apply that knowledge in a never-ending process of transformation.

Co-Create

So, how can we deal with the current digital challenges and the technological disruption?

As I have written many times before, a big part of the answer is “co-creation.” New digital technologies and their applications must be “co-created” by technologists and non-technologists working together in open and inclusive partnership. I see no alternative.

A New Culture

One of the participants in the Oslo events came up to me and made an interesting point. She agreed with the “4Cs” described above but added a fifth one: culture.

The digital revolution has already happened. There is no turning back. So, the focus should be on how we can encourage more people to change their attitude to technology and embrace this new approach. For her, the answer was clear: we need to radically change the culture in organizations that are affected by digital technologies. And that pretty much means everyone.

While I was at the airport waiting for my flight back home, I was thinking about this some more. And no matter how I look at it, the solution always comes back to education.

The events in Oslo focused on knowledge workers, but a similar approach applies to all workers. My wife owns a restaurant, and the kitchen and serving staff we see are usually trained to do standardized routine work. In an age of intelligent machines, this approach is wrong. All of their jobs will be automated within the next five to ten years.

Everything they “learned” will soon be irrelevant.

The only solution is for schools to train students to cope with technologies, to construct a better future by being creative, to collaborate with digital technologies, and to engage in open and inclusive co-creation.

I realize that this isn’t an easy task.

In order to deal with the disruptions of the future, we first have to “disrupt education.”

And until we encourage much more innovative and creative thinking in the classroom, we will continue to focus on what technology “takes” away from us and not on the new world of opportunity that is emerging around us.

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