Fearing the Future?
There are many ways in which we can view and explore the future, but what happens if we do it through the lenses of an often asked question: Will a robot take my job?
Yes, a robot will most likely take your job – or at least change its current function dramatically – within the next two decades and experts seem to agree that the acceleration of this development will start around 2020.
A key reason for this scenario is that a robot is not what most people think it is. It is not only a physical structure but also an algorithm, a software program and as such early forms of artificial intelligence that can perform many different tasks.
We often think that people working in production, manufacturing and with different kinds of repetitive, manual labor functions are the ones that will lose their jobs because of robots and artificial intelligence. This is already happening today, but it does not stop here.
Think driverless cars and trucks. This is all about algorithms and various sets of technologies programmed to do certain things and learn/improve themselves in order to eliminate the physical driver. Companies like Uber and Lyft aim to cut the drivers out of their business equation as the important thing for them is to control the platform – and the value chain – that allows users to get flexible mobility on the cheap. There is no need for them to share their revenues and profits with drivers. As a result, we have now begun a massive job destruction within the transportation and mobility sector that will last the next 5-10 years. More and more people can relate to and understand the impact of this. What surprises almost everyone though is how fast this is now happening.
I often hear the argument that farming could be an industry that can create a new wave of jobs. Maybe this is tied to a nostalgic understanding of farming because this is definitely not going to happen. Think of the many steps of sowing, growing, harvesting, transporting, producing and selling food and other farming produce. There are so many elements in this supply and value chain where the digital revolution – and in particular internet of things (IoT) and physical robots – will be applied to improve the outcome, quality and even the experience of food. But this will be driven by robots, machines and algorithms, not people. We will see massive job losses here too.
What about jobs like doctors and lawyers that require a high level of education? Well, IBM is doing great things with Watson, a super computer, on which they are now feeding insane amounts of information in specific fields like medicine and law. These are domains where the human brain has been considered superior even towards computers and artificial intelligence for many years. But not anymore. Just google keywords like “watson+doctor+healthcare” or “watson+ross+law” and you get an idea of how fast progress happens in these fields.
We can argue, of course, that we need people to write the codes and build the robots, but the jobs this will create will be far less than what we lose and I just don’t believe that we can re-train that many drivers and farmers to do this. Many experts support this view in fast growing number of articles covering this dilemma.
So what is the solution?
I keep returning to a discussion I had with some great people at Singularity University last year. Their take was that jobs will be less, but it can be offset by people working less. Take more leisure time and only work 4 days a week.
This sounds alluring, but I don’t buy it. Countries will be fighting each other to win the future and people, in general, are ambitious and driven – they want more and more all the time – and if you can get more by working more, people will do it. It is human nature. The result is that the winners will win big and the losers will lose even more.
This is the scenario I have in mind when I explore the future in the context of white collar workers and in particular those involved in corporate transformation, digital capabilities, disruption, and innovation management. What are the threats, challenges, and opportunities here?
Unfortunately, I see more threats and challenges than opportunities and good things. The more I look into this field, the more worried I get about the organizational and societal changes we are about to experience due to the major shift of how work is done in the future and how more jobs will be lost than created in this process.
In general, history has shown us that when we have had major revolutions like the first one (water and steam to mechanize production), the second one (electric power for mass production) and the third one (electronics and IT to automate production), there was at first a massive destruction of jobs that lasted for 10-15 years before an even bigger job boom developed.
I just don’t see how this will happen this time. If not only factory workers and drivers, but also highly educated people like lawyers and doctors and anyone in between will lose their jobs because of robots and artificial intelligence, we can’t reproduce enough jobs within a fairly short period.
A key reason is that most of the world’s countries are too slow to adapt to this. I don’t really blame them because the changes we are witnessing now are so profound and dramatic and even worse, they are happening so fast. So, unfortunately, many countries will be caught off guard and their citizens will suffer while they will see a few other, more nimble and adaptive countries start reaping the benefits of this fourth industrial revolution.
This situation will cause high unemployment levels that can lead to social unrest in many countries. Again, we have seen this several times before in the history of mankind (the other industrial revolutions) but this time it will be driven even further due to the fast communication means that are in place today. News (true, false or alternative) spread faster and movements have more impact. This will seriously rattle governments around the world of which many – including the so-called democratic strongholds in the west – are already more vulnerable today than ever before.
Will this lead to war? Of course. What we can hope for is that somehow world leaders will restrain themselves and start working together rather than fighting each other, but very few people actually believe that such a kind of “world government” will happen. Maybe first if all of mankind have a common threat of some kind.
I did not offer much of a solution here, but you get more in my next post: Exploring the Future: Survival Strategies for Organizations, Executives and Employees.
image credit: bigstockphoto.com
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Stefan Lindegaard is an author, speaker, and strategic advisor. His work focuses on transformation based on disruption, digitalization and innovation in large corporations, government organizations and smaller companies. Stefan believes that business today requires an open and global perspective, and his work takes him to Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia. He is author of several books including 7 Steps for Open Innovation; Social Media for Corporate Innovators and Entrepreneurs; Making Open Innovation Work, and The Open Innovation Revolution. Follow @lindegaard and LinkedIn Pulse.