Where you fit into the future
The current language when talking about Artificial Intelligence, Robots and Automation – (what we can name the ‘AIRA’ technologies), and their impact on jobs is often fearful or aggressive. The ‘robots will take your job and everything is ruined’ mentality seems pervasive. The headlines are pitched to grab your attention while pulling at your fears. However, increasing anxiety over job security is understandable as we’re seeing artificial intelligence, robots and automation, taking over in areas we previously thought were safe.
Undeniably there is a huge change happening thanks to these technologies. Yes, many jobs are under threat – but that isn’t the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.
In talk of possible futures, we’re often presented with ‘all or nothing’ scenarios. . . ‘This will happen. This won’t happen’. . . The certainty and the drama make the headlines, but more likely, neither prediction will be entirely correct, the truth will lie somewhere in between – or somewhere else entirely.
It’s easy when thinking of what might happen in future, to skip to the end of a set of speculative steps. But for each extra step, the likelihood of the end result being an accurate representation of what will actually happen is reduced.
However, while keeping this in mind, it’s not unreasonable to speculate on the direction technologies may head in general, but – we can never know where technologies will lead specifically.
Which direction might AIRA technologies head in?
What one-step jumps are available for Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation from our current position? From here to there, into the immediate ‘adjacent possible’, to borrow a useful term from Stuart Kaufmann, biologist and complex systems analyst.
It looks likely that one possibility – that of replacing us entirely, will lead to job losses. Speculative figures vary widely on this but the general view is this number is set to be huge.
Technology replacing us is the area that gets the most attention. It’s certainly the easiest to get your head around and the most immediately unsettling because it creates an unknown vision of the world where a touchstone of your literal and psychological security is undermined. It is probable that many workers will be replaced almost entirely by these technologies over time. There is a growing set of jobs that can already be done by AIRA technologies and this number will likely increase.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that one of the primary uses of these technologies is doing things we don’t want to. Dangerous jobs, boring jobs, physically demanding jobs and jobs where high levels of repetitive accuracy are needed to name a few. Much of it has been going on for years as factories will always seek the cheapest workforce, be that human or machine. Some of us already have the privilege of the use of similar technologies to do some of these tasks already. I’m certainly very grateful for my washing machine and AI generally does an excellent job of flying aeroplanes – but it’s the potential scale and extent that AIRA technologies can replace us that has caused such alarm.
The future of employment seems likely to rely on us finding new things to do with these new technologies, using them in new ways to create other avenues of pursuit and other mechanisms of revenue generation. Increased automation is likely to lead to the capacity for more production while employing fewer people.
The most readily available parallel to the threat of replacement by technology is that of the shift experienced during the industrial revolution in Europe and the USA. Huge numbers were employed in agriculture in the 1800s – the majority of the population in some countries. Due to the mechanisation of agriculture, now the figure is between 1% and 5%.
In many retellings, this tale ends here, a triumph of technology and a human tragedy of mass unemployment. But that’s not the end of the story… individuals, communities and businesses who had been disrupted and displaced sought out, and created new opportunities, some of which were on the back of the very technologies that had brought about this enormous change in their lives.
This brings us to the next possibility. . .
Successful new technology often develops, displaces, disrupts or destroys a previous technology or mode of being, but with each new technology, the horizon of possibility retreats further, offering us new opportunities, new collaborations, recombinations of old ideas and new ways of being and working.
New technologies open new possibilities, but from our current vantage point, we can’t see what those possibilities are.
This shouldn’t alarm us – we’ve been in analogous situations before, because actually we are always in this situation. Throughout history, we have constantly been in a period of technological development, it’s just the speed of that technological development that changes. There are slow periods and fast periods, but technological development and innovation are always happening, they never stop.
Artificial Intelligence, Robots and Automation will offer new opportunities for human endeavour and new markets will follow. We have good historical precedent for creating work we’d never even imagined, built on the technology of the previous age.
A single new technology can offer immense opportunity when combined with an existing technology or applied in an existing field. Some of these recombinations are more successful than others and new products, new markets and new ways of working emerge.
Could our grandparents have predicted many of the jobs we do today? It’s very unlikely. In the same way, many of the jobs we will do tomorrow haven’t been thought of yet.
Clues to the future of work
We should be looking at the technology that is being created today to see what we might be doing tomorrow. It’s likely our future jobs will in part be based on these technologies and through the opportunities they offer directly and the opportunities they offer in combination with existing technologies. New markets will open up thanks to the ingenuity of today’s creators and existing markets will be reimagined.
Collaboration – The middle way
It seems the impact of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation globally will be so great that there will be no area of the human populated planet that isn’t affected by them to some degree.
Over time, the opportunities for work as we know it today, for purely human workers in any given role, will decrease. But the set of opportunities for work as we will come to know it tomorrow – through human collaboration with AIRA technologies will increase.
Through collaboration, we will get more of what we do now done – better, quicker and cheaper. In addition, these tools will be great enablers of new opportunities and new markets. We will find new things to explore that were previously not possible without these technologies or collaborations. New types of businesses and new economies will come to life.
Increasingly we are becoming more collaborative. The idea of the lone genius working away in solitude is shifting from our consciousness in favour of ‘multi-mind’ working. This is in part because we’ve reached a point where many challenges we face need more than one person, or single areas of expertise, to work on them. Also, it’s never really been like that anyway – lone geniuses are nearly always products of cultures, histories and communities.
When we begin to consider AIRA technologies as a community of available collaborators, rather than a threat, we identify the huge potential for greater human success through us working together in partnership with technology.
In the way we can now (mostly) all use computers, we’ll be able to use AI, robots and automation. Many variants of this technology will be accessible. It’s likely there will still be a distinction between industrial robots – the descendants of today’s factory machines, where an untrained human won’t be able to operate it – but there will also be masses of new generic AI, robots and automations available to us with the same ubiquity as personal computers today, each with familiar operating systems and functionality.
We will all put these to use in our daily lives. One of our largest jobs in future will be exploring new ways to deploy these AIRA technologies as tools for our benefit. As we discover new opportunities through collaboration, the horizon of possibility will retreat further, revealing even more opportunity. Because of this, and the inherent usefulness to us, human and AIRA collaboration is very likely to become the most fruitful area of expansion and development.
Why collaboration is more likely than takeover
While it is true that these technologies encompass some of the most powerful and fastest developing technology we’ve ever seen, we must keep in mind – timescale of adoption, speed of development, and the extent they are used and impacts they can have.
It’s unlikely in real terms the world will change totally or overnight. A by-product of this gradual adoption is a phased uptake, which will engender collaboration between humans and AIRA technologies. Largely we will use these technologies, (as we use their predecessors today), to do things we don’t want to, or can’t. This will lead to discovering how we can work better together while finding yet more opportunities for use of these tools and for further collaborations.
AIRA technologies have the potential to free us from many of the tasks we don’t want to do, and to do new things that would be impossible without them. Both of these let us develop and explore new ways of living and working.
But what if robots really do take all our jobs?
First, this is only a threat if we also throw out the ‘AIRA technologies lead to new opportunities’ view espoused above. By suggesting there are a finite number of jobs and human endeavours, and that ultimately each will be replaced by technology, we are only focusing on half of the dynamic.
My view remains that any time technology replaces people, ultimately those people find something new to do, often in collaboration with and thanks to the existence of those new technologies. In doubting this, we are underestimating our ingenuity, creativity and resolve.
While it is true that ever advancing technology will be able to do more of the finite set of what we do today, we are forgetting the near infinite set of opportunities also created.
But what if I’m wrong?
The figures for displacement are unknown, the timescales involved and the extent and speed AIRA technologies could take over remain unclear although the predicted percentages are high.
If we extrapolate to the end, and every existing job is taken up by a robot or AI, then ultimately it seems we have to consider a future where given enough time, eventually automation could take all jobs.
If humans are replaced in all jobs then our mechanisms of personal wealth creation are changed significantly. Our perception of value will alter radically. It wasn’t long ago that we baulked at the idea of the digitisation of music or ebooks. There was an initial reaction against them for in some sense, not being proper, but quickly we shifted our value perception to realise that it wasn’t the physical item that carried the value any more, but the information or data itself.
If AIRA technologies do take all work in future, we will also undoubtedly experience great changes in how and what we value.
Shifting values – profound effects in a new world
In an automated world, where robots can create products of quality, far cheaper than we can today, and with ever increasing accuracy and replicability. Our placement of value shifts. Would we value a robot made perfectly identical version of a handmade violin as much as we value a Stradivarius today? Will the originals remain as interesting artefacts in the history of instrument making? Or be regarded as the final prototype before AIRA created versions came into being?
It is likely that there will be a shift towards greater value in anything that cannot be replicated (an increasingly small set of things), or isn’t perceived to be diminished by doing so. An effect of this is we will value experiences more.
The Experience Economy
Both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ experiences will become even more significant markets than they are today, as will the blurring of the two through augmented, mixed and virtual realities. They may even become a primary market. Virtual worlds enable whole new types of experience without leaving home – from work to entertainment. Virtual meetings could spell the end of business travel, while touring the wonders of the natural world from your living room offering more affordable sightseeing to some. We are likely to place enormous value on both real and virtual niche experiences, carefully curated by humans and algorithms to match our interests perfectly – or set up to challenge us for education, exploration and personal growth.
It is also likely that many of us will be involved in the consumption, production and facilitation of these experiences. For virtual experiences, anyone can be a creator of niche worlds, perhaps for business use, perhaps for entertainment. These spaces, whatever they may be are the magazines, chat rooms, games arcades, offices, shopping and social centres of the future. Many will be functional, even more will be bizarre. It seems likely that in future you won’t have a blog, you’ll have your own virtual world and many will be monetised.
Through virtual experiences, it is possible for any number of people to ‘attend’ any event. Billions could have the best seat in the house for any live event from the front row at a sports match to a box at the opera. The event capacity becomes elastic and the audience and attendee numbers can be unrestricted. In addition to this, due to the ease and ubiquity of these virtual events, ‘real’ events will also hold more value.
‘Unplugged’ off-net experiences will be sought for their rarity, for their authenticity and used as respite from the connected world as leisure time. Automation may close some doors but it opens many more for us to explore including the rise of experiences, hyper niche markets and micro and macro economies.
A shift in how we work and what types of job we do, will lead to huge markets based on experiences, both real and virtual, blurring the lines between what we currently perceive as reality, and virtual or augmented spaces. We will value and demand quality and usefulness of experience across everything we do and in every way we interact with each other. AIRA technologies will help focus us on and value the things that make us human – culture, experience, care and communities.
A more cultured caring and individual world?
After our basic needs are met (and often before) we invest our time and money in culture, highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between – games, opera, sport, cinema, cooking, painting, paintball. Without culture, what are we?
There will be a rise in cultural work, entertainment, experiences and also care and repair. With our notions of value shifted we value culture, relationships, care and experiences even more. These entertainment, experience, culture and care economies may boom.
Ironically the ‘rise of the robots’ might be the most humanising thing we’ve ever done. Our efforts, personally and in business will be to connect more, seeking out higher quality experiences together, through creating, sharing, collaborating and exploring.
We choose the future
The future is not a done deal. Many pathways from any given present moment are still optional. It is true that some may have now become unavoidable due to our previous actions, but largely we create the future through the choices we make today. We can still influence many of those choices by considering what we know now and what directions we can head in before we take the next step.
Will all truck drivers, accountants, lawyers, teachers, bakers, IT installers, painters, archaeologists, surgeons, pharmacists and basketball players be out of a job tomorrow? No. But increasingly, any job will become threatened in its current form by the rise of AIRA technologies. However, how we choose to use and deploy these technologies and what we choose to do by working with them is the biggest influence on how our future will turn out.
There are many possible futures, but only one will happen
We are still in a position where we call the shots, but this might not always be the case. We are on the cusp of creating technologies that might influence or even remove some of our choices. Right now we have influence over how our future unfolds.
It is essential that we are responsible and spend time thinking how to create a future for the benefit of all. In the main, the future is still something we choose. These technologies offer powerful ways of improving life and work for us all and can give us the opportunity to create a better future for ourselves and the planet.
– Kev Cooke is Managing Editor of D/SRUPTION