Recently I have been confronted with a rising number of articles on job loss due to AI and robotics. And because most of them predict a huge decline in jobs, I have been frustrated by them. So here is my vision of the jobs of tomorrow.
Are we horses?
The most popular analogy in the doomsday articles is that with the advent of motorized transport, there was a steep decline in “jobs” for horses in the city. Many authors argue that the same will happen to us when AI & robotics get widely used with the fourth industrial revolution. But they could not be more wrong.
First of all, we’re not horses. We were the stable boys, carriage drivers and the other people enabling the transport. And yes, these jobs disappeared. But they were replaced with other jobs: mechanics, truck drivers and many more.
Jobs were not lost, they were replaced.
But let’s, for the sake of the argument, entertain the idea that we would be the horses in this story. How bad would it be that these “jobs” no longer existed? The typical life expectancy for a horse is 25 years, but in the grueling working conditions of the city streets, that was reduced to about 5. So, would you want a job that kills you at the age of 14? No? I already thought so.
Beyond the analogies
While it is true that looking at the past can give some insight in what the future will bring, you have to be careful when you do that. After all, it is a sort of extrapolation and any engineer will tell you that this can get you into trouble (Just ask those who worked on the Space Shuttle).
Throughout history many jobs were lost due to advances in technology. After all, we no longer have that many typists, “punch card operators” or telegraphists. But we have many other jobs which were unimaginable twenty or even ten years ago.
How many telegraphists do you know?
Social Media Managers, Front-End Developers, Data Scientists or Innovation Managers like myself did not exist. Because we are ever more demanding in what we want and need, the job-balance has a way of resetting itself every time a shockwave of technological development passes by. But there are a few caveats.
First, things tend to get worse before they get better. As in every revolution, there will be some problems in the beginning. The people who have the “old” jobs will have a hard time changing to the new jobs. We need to be mindful of that, and help those people make the change. And second, the jobs seem to become more complicated, requiring a higher level of education. This is mostly because they require skills most people do not yet have. But is that really the case for the change which is coming?
So, what will the future bring?
First of all, a quick reminder: the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, is not about the introduction hard automation with robots or computers. That was the previous, third revolution.
To the contrary, the Design Principles of Industry 4.0 don’t even include “hard” automation:
- Interoperability: The ability of machines, devices, sensors, and people to connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things (IoT).
- Information transparency: The ability of information systems to create a virtual copy of the physical world by enriching digital plant models with sensor data.
- Technical assistance: First, the ability of assistance systems to support humans by aggregating and visualizing information comprehensibly for making informed decisions and solving urgent problems on short notice. Second, the ability of cyber physical systems to physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting, or unsafe for their human co-workers.
- Decentralized decisions: The ability of cyber physical systems to make decisions on their own and to perform their tasks as autonomously as possible. Only in the case of exceptions, interferences, or conflicting goals, are tasks delegated to a higher level.
The third point, Technical Assistance, is essential to understanding what impact Industry 4.0 will have on our jobs. By design, the idea is to make us, humans, more efficient while at the same time making our jobs more bearable. This “augmenting” of the human capabilities will counter the increased complexity of the future jobs by better supporting us. Our jobs will become more complex, but technology will help us deal with that.
So, as i see it, we don’t have to be afraid of additional complexity because this will be dealt with by technology. People will still be able to find jobs suitable for their profile, and the learning of new skills will be facilitated by assistance systems.
A second, very important argument is that the current state of technology does not allow us to replace people in the vast majority of jobs. Any job which requires true intelligence or creativity won’t be replaced anytime soon. And that’s more jobs than you would think.
For all of the above reasons, I’m optimistic about the future of our jobs. Yes, there will be many changes, and yes, at times they will be difficult to manage. But now we have the means to support the workforce like we have never had before. Technology is taking our jobs, but only to replace them with better ones we can’t even begin to imagine right now.
Originally published at thomasnagels.be on October 3, 2017.