Tech & Startups

The future of work

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If we all took a moment to think about whether what we do, day in, day out, is as unique and valuable as we might like to think, we may shock ourselves at the resulting realisation. As technology races ahead of us, it’s not unthinkable that a large proportion of the jobs we do right now could be replaced by an automated process or AI within the next quarter of a century, if not sooner.

USA, 1916, the first known usage of the self-service checkout in a store called Piggly Wiggly, a rather ridiculous name associating with a technology patented by the store’s founder Clarence Saunders, that would go on to put thousands, if not millions of supermarket cashiers around the world out work over the century that followed. 

Today in the retail space alone the consumer can buy groceries, petrol, fast food and even go for a workout in the gym without having to communicate with another living soul – those that once did these jobs forced to find an alternative source of income, their jobs redundant.

Our present is a window into our future, as already the landscape is being shaped. We know that planes virtually fly themselves; we know that driverless lorries, buses and cars are merely a few years of testing away from sharing our roads; we are more aware than ever that we as humans are at the mercy of the tech that once assisted us, tech that may soon have the capability to replace us.

James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute has been examining the issue in detail, and feels that the crux of the matter is that where previous automation involved having machines do physical, command driven work, automation of the last 5-10 years has seen these machines making choices of their own:

“What feels different is that we seem to be building machines that aren’t just about adding muscle or automating routine tasks, but they seem to be doing wholly new, different things.”

Manyika begins. He, like many other key figures in the business world senses an urgency surrounding this topic, a genuine concern that machines are developing the ability to think for themselves:

“[They’re doing things] that you can’t write an algorithm for a machine to do; machines are actually learning to do something—they’re not being scripted to do something—they’re discovering patterns, they’re discovering things themselves…it feels different to people. And so, people start to worry about what’s left for human beings to do.”

But this isn’t a sob story, or a lament of the beaten and irrelevant, this is a wakeup call for us to shape the kind of relationship we want with technology going forward. The question isn’t how tech will phase us out of our own workplace, but more how we can refine our human traits to ensure that technology is simply unable to compete… for the foreseeable future at least.

So, what is the plan? What direction do we take to secure our working future, our children’s future in employment? It will probably be a combination of several adaptive approaches. If you look at the types of activities that could easily be automated, you’ll find that very few occupations stand to be taken over completely, with many jobs consisting of a range of activities, only some of which a machine could do.

What is likely for the future is that a role will evolve and change, rather than disappear altogether – there’s still a supermarket cashier overseeing a number of self-services terminals after all. This seems to be the blueprint for the future of work, and our saving grace being that technological advancement is only one factor in the labour market’s adoption of such technologies over humans.

There are many other variables at play that will determine whether a machine will end up teaching your kids maths or cooking your dinner at a restaurant; these variables include acceptance by society, cost of the tech against that of a human workforce, as well as legal and moral questions too.

Empathy, judgement and creativity will be the loaded skills for the future of work, with data processing, data collection and manual labour being those most at risk. As a society we will need to be ready to adapt to a world where menial jobs cease to exist. For most it will be a case of adaptation, being flexible, honing the right skills and finding our human side and its value, but just as important will be our obligation to support those that can’t.

In association with Twino, Latvia