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Automation and The Rise of Meaningful Work

In 2005, Google’s Director of Engineering and Futurist Ray Kurzweil published one of the most important books on the future of our species: The Singularity is Near. Unlike the Musks’ and Hawkings’ of the world, Kurzweil has been a consistent champion of technology and automation — and for good reason. A rational optimist, his worldview and predictions are grounded in scientific fact and empirical evidence.

In his book, Kurzweil welcomes a future in which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence: a tipping point known as the technological singularity. In this era, Kurzweil envisions that we will be able to merge with machines to upgrade our biology and intellectual capacity. While we haven’t yet encountered Super Intelligent AI that can do this, Narrow AI has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. As a result, despite the positive outlook that experts like Kurzweil present, the headlines suggest that most people imagine a dystopian future in which AI will, at best, steal our jobs and, at worst, lead to human extinction.

Concerns over the changing employment landscape carry some merit. Current technology alone could automate over 45% of all activities that we are now paid to do. But if history is an indicator of anything, change brought about by technological advancement isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A debate on the future of work warrants cautious thought, objective analysis, and a futuristic mindset about the possibilities that await us. To begin, we must ask a crucial question: how, exactly, is the landscape of work changing? What are some of the jobs and industries of the future? What skills will we need to thrive in the future?

Who should we believe — the Musks’ of the world, or the Kurzweils’ of the world?

The Decline of Repetitive Jobs

The fear of robots stealing our jobs is nothing new. Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I denied an English Inventor named William Lee a patent for an automated knitting contraption, out of concern that the invention would deprive several women of employment.

Ironically, though Queen Elizabeth feared for jobs when she denied Lee’s patent, the weaving technology ended up creating several more jobs for weavers. As the Industrial Revolution taught us, technology is a massive economic driver. Because automation liberated weavers from doing tedious, mundane tasks and spiked worker productivity, people had the opportunity and capital to innovate in the industry, generate higher wages, more jobs, and ultimately create a revolution within retail.

As the Luddites of the 20th century will tell you, it’s often difficult for us to see the benefits of technology. In the short-term, technological upgrading warrants significant change; from upskilling workers to requiring more capital. In the long-term, however, technology can be a resource-liberating source. In the near future, automation is undoubtedly going to continue to impact several sectors. However, the jobs that have the risk of being automated are those that involve repetitive and linear tasks that are easy to code. High-risk fields include transportation, retail, customer service, agriculture, accounting, and finance. Jobs within these include truck drivers, telephone operators, paralegals, CPAs, laborers and other administrative workers.

Technology itself has always been a double-edged sword: the fire that kept us warm also burned down our houses. How we leverage it is entirely up to us. According to Ray Kurzweil, technology has amplified both our creative and destructive impulses. That said, the decline of mundane, repetitive, boring, and unsatisfying jobs could, in reality, be a positive thing for our society. What it leads to is more meaningful, purposeful work. As some experts predict, technology will lead us into the imagination age, in which creativity and imagination will be the primary creators of economic and societal value. In the imagination age, technologies like virtual reality and user created content change the way humans interact with each other and how they create social and economic structures.

The Current Problem of Employee Disengagement

According to Gallup, employee disengagement is at an all-time high. Today, a staggering 87% of employees all over the world feel disengaged at work. Technology will help us solve this problem of employee disengagement.

Let’s go back for a second to the Queen Elizabeth example. In the 20th century, automation played a pivotal role in increasing individual worker productivity within the retail sector. In the 21st century, this role has completely changed the landscape of retail. On the consumer end, companies like Amazon are leveraging technology to change the way we shop and providing us with personalized shopping experiences. Meanwhile, the back-end manufacturing sector is seeing a phenomenal breakthrough. Exponential technologies like 3D printing are ushering an era of digital manufacturing. With 3D modeling, manufacturing engineers can design the factory floor layout and production flow, allowing engineers to search for ways to increase efficiency in production before production even begins.

On the one hand, this disruption in manufacturing will cause several people to be out of jobs — specifically manual labor and factory workers. With companies like Amazon leveraging VR, AR and AI assistants to personalize the shopping experience, customer service representatives and cashiers might find themselves out of jobs too. But in the long run, that could be a good thing, because these innovations give rise to a whole new league of jobs that are far more satisfying and allow us to tap into our individual skills. Soon, instead of applying to be a retail clerk at a store, you could be applying to be a 3D printing fashion designer or a VR architect.

Technological liberation could help us solve the problem of employee disengagement. When we don’t have to worry about completing mundane tasks that are instead done more efficiently by machines, we have the time to tap into our imagination and creativity to do work that is more satisfying. With fewer people needed to complete repetitive tasks, society will have pave the way for people to get involved in sectors that could could add to our overall intellectual progress: like neuroscience, bioengineering, and even space exploration.

Industries of the Future

While we can confidently predict which jobs will go away — a prominent example being truck and taxi drivers — it’s hard for us to predict, precisely, what new jobs we can expect to have in the next few years. Jobs of the future exist in industries and concepts that don’t exist yet. By one estimate, 65% of of the children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. Consider the fact that, 20 years ago, a job title like Social Media Manager would have left most people bewildered, to say the least.

Though it may be hard to exactly pin-point what the future holds, what we do know is that the sectors that will survive will be those that can’t be automated. We’ll see more of an importance placed on the integration of art with technology, and we’ll need people who can utilize these areas of intelligence to fulfill jobs like Virtual Reality Architect or 3D Printing Fashion Designer.

We’ll also see an expansion in fields like neuroscience that help us gain a better understanding of ourselves and help us upgrade our biology. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion in jobs relating to data science. This expansion will continue as we seek to invent more sophisticated technology and as we enter the era of 5G.

Meanwhile, our current jobs that will continue to exist will be those that can’t be automated — in other words, jobs that require a high-level of emotional intelligence and engagement. According to Edward Hess, these involve teachers, social workers, physical therapists, and counselors.

The Rise of Meaningful Work

As we attempt to robot-proof ourselves, we’ll need to adopt some critical skills that ensure that we not only survive, but thrive in the future. The education sector will have to be completely revamped if we want to prepare the youth to succeed in an ever-changing work landscape.

According to Edward Hess, we should teach iterative learning — that is, the unlearning and relearning of skills. Moreover, what jobs of the future will need is high-order thinking (critical, innovative and imaginative), high emotional intelligence, and complex problem-solving.

In the long run, tapping into these various aspects of human potential will change what it means to work. Currently, we spend a lot of time at jobs that we don’t necessarily enjoy, which causes us to lead unfulfilling lives. Often, the reason we’re disengaged at work is because we’re completing repetitive tasks and we’re unable to see the tangible results of the work that we do. But if we perform jobs that allow us to pursue our intellectual interests, we might be able to attach purpose and meaning to work. With more people doing jobs that require non-linear thinking, human interaction, problem-solving and creativity — all skills that keep us engaged in the long-term — automation could increase our overall happiness.



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Tannya D. Jajal

I work @VMware. Philosophy, Psychology, Technology, Ethics, Policy