Surfing Automation: Staying Relevant while Riding the Digital Shockwaves
Automation has always been viewed with mixed feelings: awe and anticipation, as well as distrust and fear. From the Gutenberg press to the invention of the power loom, the replacement of human labor with machinery has, throughout history, provoked many a cry of protest.
Perhaps most famous was the Luddite movement. Born in 1812 and named after the supposed story of Ned Ludd, a young weaver who smashed two stocking frames, the group felt threatened by the rise of automated textile equipment which they believed was used to get around standard labor practices, thus threatening their livelihoods and value as skilled workers.
Today, the term Luddite refers to technology-averse attitudes, usually borne of fear. And while technology is generally accepted as a force for good, the expected boom of automation in the next few years will not always be a black and white issue.
As noted in my previous blog, looking closely at the rise of short-lived business opportunities, automation is expected to gain momentum again in the next few years and beyond. It will give rise to intelligent systems that perform increasingly complex tasks, previously impossible to conceive. We will see social machines, smart contracts and other types of more advanced interactions. Within only a few years, some machines will be indistinguishable from people, able to make decisions and orchestrate common actions.
Some argue that such a degree of automation will threaten many human jobs. Furthermore, with the rise of artificial intelligence it is not only manual labour that is at stake. Non-manual, so-called white-collar, tasks are increasingly subject to automation as well. In addition, the fragmentation and shorter lifetime of tasks themselves could drive the emergence of a ‘gig economy’, where short term positions are common, and organizations collaborate with independent workers for on-demand engagements.
In one extreme, some experts are predicting that work could become so limited as to be a privilege, with forecasted scenarios where as little as 5% of the population would be needed to produce a country’s entire GDP. On the opposite side of the argument, other experts take the view that automation has existed for centuries, resulting always in net job creation in the long run. Whether this holds true or not for the next wave of automation, only time will tell. However, a risk recognized by both camps is that such a positive long-term outlook could be reached via a bumpier short-term path, where many population cohorts won’t reskill in time to keep in sync with the cycle.
Challenging existing beliefs
Whatever the outcome is in the long run, societies should challenge some existing beliefs to prepare best for automation. Concepts such as the Universal Basic Income or the Negative Income Tax are already under discussion and may become a serious option for the governments of many countries, especially given the increasing inequality rates in some societies. They would provide a basic ‘cushion’ to guarantee the coverage of people’s basic necessities.
Considering both physical and virtual machines, there are also incipient proposals to regulate their ownership and their labour production. Should machines or their owners pay taxes? Should machines pay insurance? Should machine ownership (obligations and benefits) be distributed among humans? Should the current and growing inequalities among humans be tackled in parallel?
Of course, the benefits of automation could be huge, in freeing up humans from basic tasks, allowing us to channel our efforts into higher level projects that will help drive innovation and development. This could also lead us to reconsider the attitude towards work in our respective cultures. Could we be overvaluing work due to historical inertia? Could we all cover our basic needs by working significantly less hours, freeing time for leisure or collaborative activities?
These are complex issues that will require social, economic and political debate in the years ahead.
Education will remain key
Whatever the outcome is, education will continue to be of paramount importance. Education and lifelong training will be the only means of coping with the ever-changing requirements of the future. On the labor side, a solid background in key areas – such as computing, or mathematics – will enable people to continually learn and adapt, in contrast to the idea that people must become quickly specialized in very specific topics. Too early or excessive overspecialization will not help one surf the Digital Shockwaves.
To find out more about how technology is changing our world, check out our latest Journey 2020 publication.