The history of work is the history of technology.
Throughout that history, technology has brought comfort, ease, and prosperity.
And all along it has taken jobs, disrupted lives, and changed the way people live and think.
Each new age of innovation has brought a revolution. First, there was steam, then mass production, and late last century information technology.
Now, researchers and thought leaders have declared a Fourth Revolution: an age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), advanced automation, and sophisticated robotics.
The benefits this technology offers to businesses is already evident: greater efficiency and productivity, economic growth, and cheap products.
This bright future is shrouded in a gloom that for many is hard to escape, for it implies the end of work as we know it, and perhaps the end of our jobs.
This is the “pessimistic” forecast of recent surveys authored by creditable sources on the subject.
Last year the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) released a report on the future of work in Australia.
It concluded that computerisation and automation would replace 40% of roles in the Australia work force in the next 15 years.
That is as many as 5 million jobs.
Surveys in Asia, Europe, the US, and the UK predict a similar narrative.
In the United States, Forrester’s tech researchers estimated that technological innovation will mean the end to 9.1 million jobs by 2025.
And just last week in the Swiss Alps the World Economic Forum (WEF) met. After surveying 15 countries – accounting for 65% of the world’s workforce – it said that 7.1 million jobs would be lost to robotics in the next five years.
Still, the long view of history suggests there is cause for optimism. As over the centuries, when luddites feared emerging technologies, new jobs and services actually rose as old roles were buried.
The End of Work as know it is Not Inevitable
So has the death of work in the Fourth Revolution been exaggerated?
“The key point for me is that we have choices,” Ross Dawson, futurist, told TechExec.
“We are not dealing with the inevitable when we are talking about the future of work,” he said. “Part of that is not just how we shape jobs today so that they have value and thus continue to stay [in place], but also, how we ensure new roles emerge to replace those [made redundant by new technology.]”
Kai Riemer, a Professor of Information Technology and Organisation and founder of the Digital Disruption Group, agrees.
“The question is: is this a realistic proposition?” he told TechExec.
For Riemer, the predictions and statistics are so prominent in mainstream media misdirect readers away from the salient issues.
“Even if we accept that jobs are threatened or disappear, they tend to be judged on what they will change in the world as we know it,” he said
“We fail to recognise the additional benefits that might bring in areas that we cannot foresee yet.”
Dawson suggests that the reality is that there are – and always has been – thousands of jobs disappearing in Australia’s economy.
“There are thousands of fewer jobs in manufacturing in Australia than 20 years ago”, he said.
“At the same time, there are many more jobs created in service industries,” he said.
Certain sectors like manufacturing, construction, agriculture, science, and medicine are pioneers in automation and robotics with some having traditions that have been in place for decades.
In the Fourth Revolution it will be white and grey-collar jobs that will be hit the hardest if the expectations of the current predictions are met.
The WEF Future of Jobs report said that no sector would escape the impact of AI, particularly middle management positions.
“MIDDLE MANAGEMENT HAS BEEN EVISCERATED FOR DECADES NOW,” – ROSS DAWSON
Roles in sales, office and administration will be displaced, and sectors like healthcare, energy, and financial services will undergo major disruption.
“Middle management has been eviscerated for decades now,” Dawson said, “and we are seeing quite a few managerial roles being automated.”
This indicates, Dawson says, the ability of data combined with learning algorithms to be able to make decisions that often transcend human capabilities.
He believes that the blue-collar sector will be difficult to replace since machines simply do not have the kind of manual dexterity the role requires. “But warehousing and building are definitely under threat.”
“I would argue that of all the jobs that have been replaced by machines and robots already, we are glad they have been,” Dawson said.
“Because a lot of these were things that people did not necessarily want to do and so the mantra for robot work in the past was ‘dangerous, dirty, and dull’.”
How Intelligent is Artificial Intelligence?
For Riemer the current predictions about the future of work need to be scrutinised carefully since much of their force is based on an assumption about what robotics can do.
His point is that the capabilities of AI – at least as represented in the mass media –have been overblown.
“That’s because we have failed to understand the nature of human cognition and what machines do when they perform what we call ‘machine learning’.”
Whenever a machine rummages through large amounts of data be it visual, audio, or textual machines are vastly more effective, he explains.
“They are more efficient – that is quicker – than humans in recognising patterns in large amounts of data,” Riemer said.
“What these machines cannot do and what they don’t have is that they don’t have any appreciation of what they are dealing with.”
For Professor Tim Baldwin of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Computing and Information Systems, AI is a complete misnomer.
“That’s because machines can’t actually think,” he told TechExec.
“AI can’t get anywhere near humans in practice when it involves a high degree of subjectivity or creativity, and invention.”
Baldwin says robotics and AI have not reached the point of ‘thinking systems’. Machines simply are not capable of doing anything “beyond the specifics of what we tell them to do,” he said.
In thinking about the future of work, Riemer suggests it is important to remember that machines do not have an understanding of the world we live in.
“In other words, they are a tool,” He said.
“They don’t actually simulate human cognition. Human cognition depends upon having a bodily existence in this world and those machines don’t. So any claims that those machines will do what humans do is just mistaking that what we do as humans.”
The Industry of Fear and the Rise of the Robots
For 20 years or more, authors and thought leaders have been speculating about the future of work in an age where technology would be central to global production and the economy.
There is a mini-industry of books on the subject, many of them with alarmist titles. Dawson, Riemer, and others say that these books – with titles like Our Final Invention, Robots Will Steal Your Job, as well as End of the Human Era – have fed the mass media’s fear-inducing mood on what to expect from the Fourth Revolution. It exaggerates the predictions and steers the public away from the real issues.
Riemer remains optimistic about the future of work because even if jobs disappear or radically change, “technologies may actually allow us to do new things, create new professions that haven’t entered the equation yet.”
He said robots are “a great tool that let us do certain things that we have not been able to do before. They do put under threat not so much professions, but certain jobs or I should say certain tasks.”
He suggests that while it is difficult to predict new roles and services in the future, the mobile phone makes a strong case study for what to expect.
“Who would have foreseen ten years ago that we would be running around with these miniaturised computers which basically let us do so many different tasks in our daily life?” he said.
Consider the industries that have sprung up around this technology, he said, and the innovations it has unlocked and the way it has introduced new ways we can connect with each other.
Putting the CXOs at the forefront of the Fourth Revolution
Dawson suggests that the CXO can play a crucial role in how the Fourth Revolution can be understood.
“The changing nature of work impacts demand and consumption, financial situations and so on – and it will impact [the C-Suite’s] own workforce,” he said.
In building the future of work where AI is a core value, the CXO needs to look at “what are the capabilities that we need to develop in our existing workforce,” Dawson said.
He believes that there is an opportunity for organisations to develop a unique culture where greater human potential can be realised. That way the human jobs that remain in a robot future will be richer.
“We have had active dehumanisation for decades now – where work is highly defined. This means two things: roles can be readily replaced by anybody, as well as automation.”
So the quest for organisations is to find ways to grow to full capacity their workforce where creativity and imagination will go beyond the scope of a certain role. In this way, “humans will beat down machines every time.”
For Riemer preparation and research are essential for organisations to ready themselves for the Fourth Revolution.
“I think CXOs should be making every effort to understand what these technologies actually do before they make a decision about it,” he said.
“Because there are lots of people spruiking these technologies as the next silver bullet… there is a tendency to overestimate what tech does in the short term and underestimate the profound changes in the long run.”