The Future of Work: Humans, Machines, and Entrepreneurship

March 12, 2019

We live in a fascinating world and at a fascinating time: few other centuries in history have seen such revolutionary change as we will see this century. In one of our previous articles, we looked at a few of the major disruptive technologies and discussed how they will likely change the world as we know it, particularly with respect to work. As research and analysis on the future of work and the workplace continues, many people are wondering how the predicted changes will translate into their real life, or even whether they will have the same kind of job ten years from now. Work as a concept will change as the role we, as humans, play compared to that of computers and machines changes.

Automation, Robotics, and Job Replacement

Researchers, think tanks, and consultants have produced a significant amount of research and analysis in the last 6-8 months that gives good insight into how automation and robotics will affect jobs in the near and long-term future. What’s interesting is that this is not the first time in human history where advances in technology are set to have significant impact on the workforce and which jobs are or aren’t available. People had the same questions as we do today about the future of work and their livelihoods when agriculture equipment developed, as this impacted the efficiency of a single worker, rendering many field hands redundant. Many years later during the industrial revolution, technology once again brought uncertainty to the future of work. In the second half of the twentieth century, we wondered what the effect of typewriters then computers would have on jobs and work. In all instances, the economy didn’t collapse, unemployment didn’t soar: instead, new jobs were created. That’s not to say there wasn’t structural unemployment and friction as workers adjusted their skills, but overall, prosperity and jobs didn’t cease.

Today, we find ourselves in the same situation: technology is on the doorstep of work that humans are used to doing. In the past, technology has mostly replaced jobs that are routine and manual, but today, technology is beginning to replace jobs that are routine and cognitive or non-routine and manual. If you think about classifying tasks performed in jobs, they can be generalized into a 2x2:

Manual + routine Cognitive + routine
Manual + non-routine Cognitive + Non-routine

Machines, computers, and robotics are advancing such that they are beginning to perform jobs previously reserved for humans who can think and move on their feet. Humans can problem-solve, execute non-routine manual tasks, and use their brains to analyze, create, and decide. Thanks to technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, computers and machines are now better at performing tasks that we as humans currently perform: they make less errors, they can work 24/7, and they’re more efficient. Machines struggle, however, to do cognitive, non-routine tasks as well as some manual non-routine tasks.

As a result of technological advances, a lot of people find themselves with skills that are no longer needed. There will be millions of workers who need to be re-skilled, namely to do tasks that are cognitive and non-routine. In short, if you’re wondering whether you’ll still have a job in the future, the answer is: it depends on what you do now and, in many ways, how much of your work is non-routine. We face a significant challenge as a society, country, and state to re-skill a large number of people in a relatively short amount of time as education plays a key role in minimizing structural unemployment.

A Day in the Life of a Future Worker

As we think about the future of work, its nature, and the disruptive technologies that will change a lot of what is normal today, let’s consider a possible day in the life of a future worker. After waking up, some workers will leave the house and others won’t because they work remotely. Imagine you leave the house and begin the commute. You travel to work on an autonomous train or bus (meaning there aren’t any more bus drivers), similar to the automated monorails that are found at many airports today. Your workday consists of working alongside computers or machines that do most of the routine work as well as using computers, machines, or robots to accomplish your tasks. For example, an oncology surgeon might complete surgery with precision robotics, while using a camera and augmented reality vision that’s programmed to identify 99% of cancerous biomaterial in the patient. Another example would be a data analyst who examines city-level utility and infrastructure data collected by embedded sensors to identify potential problems, anticipate repairs and schedule them, or come up with creative ways of adding value for the city, such as adding a pedestrian footbridge or re-routing traffic patterns. Tomorrow, she would work with an engineer to simulate her proposed ideas and analyze the impact of each potential solution on the entire city. A third example is a supply chain engineer who creates a virtual reality representation of the food supply chain in order to identify problem areas and potential impact, particularly if a natural disaster devastates a particular crop production area such almond trees in California.

Technology will be featured far more in our jobs causing a shift in what we do, to work that has a significant emphasis on soft skills and non-routine work.

What Will Work Look Like?

Overall, there will be a shift in hard skills, as well as a massive increase in the need for soft skills, both of which we see already today.

As we move to a world with more “smart” devices, buildings, and products, we also move to a world with more data. The challenge will be to use and make sense of the data, especially in scenarios by which machine learning or artificial intelligence fails. Machine learning works when the data is “good,” clean, and when there are patterns. In a world that is increasingly more complex and thus not pattern-heavy, part of the “work” needed will be to supplement what a computer cannot do: this will translate to making sense of data, identifying missing or misinterpreted data, and seeing where a computer has gone wrong.

In terms of soft skills, work will require augmented problem solving, creativity, flexibility, curiosity, and social and emotional intelligence. These are things that are very difficult if not impossible to program into a computer or a machine. The challenge is that when we look at the workforce today, more than 50% of us work for large companies with 500+ employees. This means most of us do specialized work that is transactional and predictable, that follows defined processes. The trouble with predictable or routine work is that it is quite susceptible to automation. Thus, if predictable job tasks shift to a computer or machine, that leaves unpredictable and non-routine job tasks for humans. Computers can’t show empathy, be creative, solve complex problems, or understand context well, particularly social context. Humans, however, can do all of those things, even if we have to train and practice first. Work won’t be the same as it is today, not just because of job tasks, but because organizational culture, design, and evaluations will have to change. How do you conduct a performance review on how creative or empathetic an employee has been and the value doing so has delivered for the company? Job tasks will indeed be different, but so will our concept of working for a company.

Entrepreneurship Is Great Future Training

Significant changes in skills for work will require significant changes in education and learning, particularly since the current education system isn’t designed for the future but based on a centuries-old model. Our education system, however, is by no means the only way of learning skills for the future. I will argue that entrepreneurship is actually great training to learn skills that we’ll need for the workforce of tomorrow.

Entrepreneurs are often a Jack/Jill-of-all trades, but more than anything, they are problem solvers. They have to be creative and solve problems that grow in complexity as their business grows in size. In order to create products or services that the market will buy, they need to first exercise empathy to understand their users and consumers. As part of business development, they need to exercise social and emotional intelligence to not just manage themselves, but to win over and work with others. In short, they have a wide skill set that requires a significant amount of soft skills that future workers will require.

That being said, entrepreneurship is by no means the only way of learning future-focused skills or developing human capacities that are more valuable than machines, computers, or robots. We will see greater shifts in how we train for the working world with a greater focus on soft skills rather than knowledge accumulation, at the very least because the market will push us there. While there is much talk about the future of work and concern for jobs of the future, there should be an equally large and pressing concern about how additional and re-aligned education can be made available to millions of people over the coming decades.

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