It’s a cliché to proclaim that technology is having a disruptive influence on our lives, changing our society and the way people work. But, what’s the scale of the change? And, are employees and organisations prepared for the future of work?
A recent event – “The Robots are coming: The future of work”- at the South Bank Centre brought together a panel of experts on robotics and artificial intelligence to debate what awaits our working lives in the near future. I was there to explore the topic and report on the talk.
Robotics – Eliminating the filters
Sabine Hauert (pictured right) is a lecturer in robotics and member of Bristol Robotics Laboratory, an academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics research in the UK. Not surprisingly, she is excited about robotics, having worked in this field for ten years. In fact, she has thousands of robots in her laboratory, which she uses to explore how humans can deploy them to undertake a range of activities.
“Robotics have the potential to change the way people work. There is a great opportunity, we should just push it to the right direction.”
Yet, she believes that there is a lot of hype around robotics, which should be corrected. In fact, she is trying to connect the experts directly with the public so that some filters can be removed. “It is about creating a community of experts who can tell what they are working on and help to spread the word about their research.”
Indeed, it is increasingly important to get the right information on robotics from the people who are working on it. For example, among the filters that she describes is the thought that creating a robot is something easy. Indeed, it is more complex that we think. And, a lot of discussions should be around understanding that complexity. “We spent years to make some robots perform a single task,” she points out.
Additionally, there is the long debate around machines taking jobs. But, for Hauert, robots are meant to help workers around specific tasks.
“This is really all we can implement at this stage. Robots and humans can work together. So, it is about identifying what tasks we want those robots to do.”
The future(s) of work
Daniel Susskind (pictured right) is a lecturer in economics at Oxford University, a former adviser to the Prime Minister and author of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts.
Very broadly, he sees two different futures for professions such as doctors, teachers, nurses or accountants. The first future is reassuringly familiar. It relates to performing a job more efficiently. “In this future, professionals use technology to streamline and optimise the traditional way in which they work,” he explains. There are many examples, which we are all familiar with: doctors using Skype to speak with patients, teachers using online material in the classroom, or architects using software to design bigger and more complicated buildings.
But, the second future is a different proposition. Here, technology doesn’t simply streamline and optimise the traditional way in which some professions have worked. Instead, “it actively displaces the work of those traditional professions.” Increasingly capable systems and machines gradually take on some of the tasks that we associate with traditional jobs.
Indeed, it is not a big bang change. Instead, what Susskind sees, is that more and more tasks are gradually being taken on by different types of people or they are not performed at all. For example, in 2014 the financial press started using algorithms to computerise the production of articles. In this instance, the technology is capable of producing thousands of features without relying on the traditional journalists.
Another example comes from the legal sector. Currently, the most popular legal brand in the US is not a traditional legal firm. It is LegalZoom.com, an online legal document drafting platform.
“Those two tasks,” says Susskind, “previously would have required a particular type of profession; now either they don’t require a profession at all, or they do require different types of workers.” In fact, someone has to build those algorithms or design the website. But, “the skills and capabilities that people are using to perform those tasks are very different.”
Ultimately, Susskind’s argument is that in the medium term those two futures will develop in parallel. But, in the long run, he believes that the second future will dominate.
“Through technology, we will find new and better ways to solve problems that traditionally only a particular type of professional was able to solve.
“We think that this will lead to the dismantling of the traditional professions.”
Humans and machines – shared relationships
Anab Jain (pictured right) is co-founder and director of Superflux, an Anglo-Indian design practice dedicated to exploring the ways in which emerging technologies interface with the environment and everyday life.
Her interest is in helping people to explore questions on the tools that people design and use. What she sees is an exaggerating sense of anxiety toward some types of technologies. Robotics and artificial intelligence are good examples. Similarly to Hauert, Jain believes that we should stop worrying about robots taking over our lives. Instead, “we need to question what it means to be humans” in relation to those new technologies. Among the questions that she left the audience with are: what does it mean to have a shared agency [between people and machines]? And how do we move forward and design a space where those shared relationships co-exist?
The education system – the need for new skills emerges
Surprisingly, among the most hesitant and conservatives audiences that Susskind encountered when researching for his book, are the young professionals. “They were the people who just finished law, medicine or architecture schools,” he explains. When he told them that the way they were going to do their jobs was going to be very different from what school had taught them, “they were furious.”
Indeed, those young professionals had put a huge amount of efforts and money in training to become a particular type of profession. And now, Susskind was telling them that the skills they would need to do their jobs were not the ones that they had spent the last ten years studying about.
Yet, what Susskind was saying to those young professionals is key to the future of work. And, to the future of education. Jain built on his point. For her, the problem is that “we are still educating children for a world that no longer exists. We are not educating children for those multiple futures of work; we continue to go down to a singular path.” Indeed, education needs to be practiced differently to reflect the changes in the workplace.
For Susskind, there are two big education challenges. First, it is how to teach people. For example, there is an appetite for new types of education, such as online courses, that has not been fully met by the traditional way of teaching.
The second challenge is what to teach. It seems to become clearer that coding skills and technology literacy will be key in the future. Based on the interviews that he conducted for his book, Susskind found that the most successful companies are led by two types of people: the “domain experts” – for example, in a legal startup, they are the people who have a great deal of knowledge in law, and the “technical specialists”, the people who are able to code and build systems.
Ultimately, for him, the story of the next 10 to 20 years is not about technological unemployment. Instead, it is about “re-deployment,” meaning the emergence of new types of people and institutions using technology to solve all different types of problems.
Making people even more human
For Hauert, more collaborative robots are coming, especially in the manufacturing sector. As a consequence, the society needs to develop more engineers and people who are able to program. But, she also points out that the technology is making some jobs even more human. “If you take the carers, for example, there is a big push to design robots that help people as they grow older,” she explains.
“Those technologies are performing the repetitive tasks so that carers are freed up of time when they meet with their patients.
“They can spend more time on having a human contact with the person they look after and develop a discussion with them.”
The second wave of artificial intelligence
Artificial Intelligence systems are becoming increasingly powerful and capable. Susskind believes that this direction of travel is not going to slow down.
But, we need to pay attention to what he calls the “artificial intelligence fallacy.” This is the belief that the only way to develop systems that can perform tasks at the same level of human beings or higher, is somehow to make the technology replicate the way in which human experts work. We hear this argument often. But, the mistake is to fail to recognise that many systems can and should perform tasks differently from human beings.
Indeed, he mentions the “second wave of artificial intelligence”. The first wave was relating to the idea that the only way to build an intelligent system was to try to understand and replicate the way in which human beings work. But, the latest wave sees the emergence of powerful algorithms that perform tasks in “un-human ways.”
Finally, Hauert points out that, contrary to what many might think, we are in control. In terms of designing the technology for example,
“this is the time to think of the type of tools that we want to build, and what we are supposed to use them for.”