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In an era of fundamental transformations of the nature of work, how can we be ready for the change?

What is the role of humans when they’re not dependent upon their own activities for the material basis of their lives?

This question was posed to the President of the United States by a group of scientists, including two Nobel laureates, who envisioned a serious socio-economic crisis caused by automation. It was 1964. The concern that we are heading towards a jobless future has cyclically come up since the British Luddite revolts in 1811. Over the past two centuries, we have avoided two major mass job extinctions by radically transforming the agricultural and manufacturing industries and by generating new occupations that are qualitatively better than the previous ones.

A success story, in short.

Will we do it again this time? The answer seems to echo in the words of Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft: 

"The future we will create depends on the choices we make today. It is not something that simply happens."

It is not easy to outline the future that awaits workers because our current forecasts cover opposite scenarios. What is certain is this: the outcome of this fundamental transformation will be closely related with the solutions we implement today.

It is a matter of responsibility that calls upon governments, industries and individuals to understand the aspects of today's technology in order to outline the risks and potentials of this historic moment and to determine what needs to be done now to be ready for the change.

Ours is above all a matter of numbers and time. McKinsey estimates that within the next ten years, 45% of workers will need retraining and that, at present, 26% of executives fear that their employees will not learn the new skills fast enough, while 24% worry that their workers will not be able to adapt. According to the most widespread predictions, we will have to save about half of our economy's jobs in one-sixth of the time taken to recover from previous employment crises.

Due to the technological acceleration of the last decades, the risk of automation grows at a speed that is difficult to cope with and concerns not only strictly manual workers but extends to freelancers and office workers. In fact, artificial intelligence has not only overtaken us in the perfect execution of repetitive and mechanical actions but it has also begun to exhibit skills linked to analysis and thought, fundamentally human characteristics, which, until now, have kept us essential to the economy. Consequently, we are facing a problem that, to some extent, concerns each and every one of us.

According to David Lee, Vice President of Innovation and the Strategic Enterprise Fund at UPS, the problem partly originates in the definition of work itself: a series of tasks performed for a certain number of hours, the measure for which people are paid. Some jobs, such as cashier or taxi driver, focus on the repetition of a single action, and in many work situations people are more machines than humans, thereby making their replacement with machinery a logical consequence for many companies. Part of the answer then seems to be identifying the human contribution in the workplace, defining the actions at risk of automation and designing more significant human roles that will be relevant in a context increasingly determined by the presence of technology.

To unlock human potential in the digital age, we need to bring flexibility to the organizational structures of businesses and to the mindset of the people to form a highly responsive and adaptable workforce, explains the World Economic Forum. It means overcoming the concept of employment based on the possession of a set of skills and encouraging a mentality of continuous learning. In fact, Ginni Rometty, Chairwoman of IBM, anticipates that skills will be the main problem of our time because everything we learn could be automated. For this reason, learning to learn, adapt and diversify will be key to surviving change.

Major companies have already implemented this system by offering long-term training on coding, blockchain, and analytics that will become the new literacy of work. One promise of artificial intelligence is its potential for collaboration with workers that, according to estimates from Accenture, could increase company revenues by 38% by 2022. In this dialectic, human critical thinking will be essential to interpreting the results of algorithms, transforming data into solutions and regulating the functioning of artificial intelligence itself. To date, explains AI Chief Scientist Yann LeCun, artificial intelligence remains severely limited in its ability to independently develop general knowledge of the world and to deduce meanings from context - aptitudes in which humans excel, making them essential to the workplace.

Furthermore, as technology develops, many aspects of human work will be linked to assistance roles. The more we live and sleep next to our tablets and mobile phones, the more we need to rediscover and value human contact. According to Sophie Bellon, Chairwoman of Sodexo, the combination of specialized technology and interpersonal skills can bring great benefits to society, but ultimately nothing can replace another human being looking into our eyes and trying to understand us. Thus emerges the value of so- called emotional intelligence that is integral to roles of assistance, communication, negotiation, teamwork and management, all of which will increasingly see humans as protagonists.

Just as important, human intelligence sparks in the high cognitive skills, imagination and creativity, which compel us to dive into problems and transform existing solutions. It is human intellect, not only technological advancement, that generates innovation and change, the driving forces of economic and social progress. Therefore, the combination of this fundamental characteristic with those previously explained, ultimately makes people indispensable to the economy. As workers strive to become the driving force behind companies, they will constantly be required to identify and solve problems affecting the business. This means implementing agile organizational solutions, linked to temporary projects, freeing people from the limitations and hierarchies of titles and delegating routine jobs to software, explains Lee in his TED Talk, 'Why jobs of the future won't feel like work'.

Ultimately, the problem of automation is a symptomatic expression of a broader underlying dilemma. Henry A. Kissinger warns that 

"Artificial intelligence, by mastering some competencies more rapidly and definitively than humans, could over time reduce human competence and the human condition itself, as it turns into data."

By interpreting that data autonomously through mathematical calculations, AI has the potential to make choices and devise strategies that humans cannot even understand. For this reason, it is crucial to define and protect the role and relevance of humans in a world increasingly determined by technology that is capable of developing skills previously reserved for humans and whose processes seem to replicate those of the human mind but are based on non-conceptual criteria and potentially independent of human control.

This article was originally published as 'Il futuro del lavoro: cosa fare per essere pronti al cambiamento' in Business Insider Italy. Cecilia Cardani FRSA works as a Digital Strategist for Business Insider and lives in London.

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