How will the rise of tech affect the future of work?
The ‘rise of the machines’ has intensified over the last number of years. In some corners, people are starting to question how this will impact the future of work?
In 2019 the BBC reported that “Robots 'to replace up to 20 million factory jobs' by 2030”. A few years earlier in 2014 Deloitte suggested that “35% of jobs in the UK were at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years.”
While it makes a great headline, the reality is robots are not coming to take our jobs. I think the reality of the news is that the robots are already here. Right?
If we look at Amazon, they have assembled the greatest robot army (200,000 of them) over the last decade. They have also hired more people than ever in the history of the company over the same period.
I firmly believe we are not headed for a doomsday stand-off with our technologically powered friends. Rather we’re at a place where advancements in robots, artificial intelligence and technology will afford people and organizations more choice in how we shape the future of work.
The Future of Work - 5 big shifts
Five big shifts are happening with work at the moment. Technology and robots are part of it, but not the totality of the shift. If we factor them in with some of the other shifts, the outcome could be positive.
The first three of these may be seen as threats and in some cases they are. But in lots of companies, they will free up resources and allow the people and the organisation to become more creative and productive.
The rise of machine learning and the human impact
Instead of viewing robots, automation, AI and technology as a threat, let’s look at the opportunity they afford us. There will never be a case where any of these replace humans entirely. They will replace tasks but not humans. Look at Amazon as an example, lots of robots and lots of people too. The machines need human operators and programmers to be successful.
Even machine learning and artificial intelligence are reliant on a human to tell it the bits to pay attention too. A great example of this is how Twitter taught Microsoft’s chatbot to become racist in less than 24 hours.
The intention was for Microsoft’s chatbot, Tay.ai, to be an experiment in "conversational understanding". It was allowed to write it’s own tweets only being guided by the tweets it encountered in the Twitter feed. Once people realised the AI could be easily influenced they began tweeting misogynistic, racist, and Donald Trumpist remarks at Tay. Tay’s tweets turned pretty dark and then Microsoft turned it off.
That probably doesn’t paint either tech or humans in a great light. But it certainly proves we can’t turn every aspect of a job over to technology and allow it off on its merry way.
Tech can remove the need for tedious labour intensive jobs allowing humans to focus on more meaningful and creative pursuits. For example, an accountancy firm with increased levels of automation may need fewer number crunchers and more financial consultants that can provide an extra layer of service for its clients.
Work to learn, not learn to work
In 1985 the average half-life of learned business competence (how long it took someone to be really skilled at their job) was approximately 30 years. In 2014 the half-life had reduced to approximately 5 years and it is still dropping due to the advancements in technology and the ability to have repetitive, routine work automated. This then allows people to focus on truly human skills, and develop their careers built around learning rather than around jobs.
Which brings us nicely on to contingent labour. This also could be seen as another threat - a way for employers to reduce permanent headcount or lessen the benefits being paid to a worker.
70% of business leaders say they need a new mix of talent and skills in future. It also may not be efficient to bring new skills into an organisation full time. Contingent workers are a quick way of filling a skills gap for employers. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) reported it takes 36 days to fill a vacancy. An agile freelancer can be onboarded in a matter of days, with little of the bureaucracy associated with traditional hires.
Equally, for the person, the gig economy is truly global and can allow skilled workers to export their talents to book work in foreign countries. According to USA Today, 74% of millennials are interested in freelancing, and 40% plan to abandon their job to freelance by 2024. Contingent labour is another way in which we can move towards career paths built around learning rather than around jobs.
The future of work is about finding intersections
All of the above has challenged us to re-examine whether humanity and technology are truly in conflict. We need to consider all the possibilities to resolve the seeming paradox of finding ways to remain distinctly human in a technology-driven world.
Human concerns are not separate from technological advances at all. Rather they are integral for organizations looking to capture the full value of the technologies they’ve put in place.
This crisis presents a unique opportunity for organizations that can overcome the instinct of treating humans and machines on parallel paths to instead build connections that can pave a path forward, one that can nurture growth and innovation.
IBEC published a report that stated 50% of the 1,000 employees surveyed said they would leave a job where an employer did not care about their well-being.
In the US 38% of employees said they suffered from excessive pressure in work. This cost the overall economy $300bn in the absence and medical care.
Organisations need to position their wellbeing program as a driver of performance and cultural change NOT a health benefit or box-ticking exercise.
Leaning too much on the tech - a cautionary tale
I came across this fascinating example of the true value of human intuition in the book “One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking” by Dave Trott.
Not many people know who Stanislav Petrov is but he single-handedly averted a nuclear war in the early 1980s. Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. He was stationed in a bunker near Moscow and he was responsible for monitoring the Soviet Union’s early-warning satellites.
At the same time that Culture Club was topping the UK charts with Karma Chameleon, Petrov was listening out for alarms that suggested the Soviet Union was under attack. In the middle of the night on the 26th September 1983, an alarm went off in the bunker… I bet he wished it had been listening to Boy George instead.
In the months and years before the alarm went off tensions had been rising between the east and west. Both superpowers had been building up their military presences in allied nations. The Soviet Union was beefing up fortifications in the eastern bloc European countries. The United States had been increasing its supply of arms to NATO countries in western Europe.
Earlier in 1983, the US had been involved in some psychological operations. They would launch squadrons of fighter jets and fly them directly at Soviet air space only to peel away at the last minute.
On 1 September 1983, a South Korean passenger jet strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down killing all 269 people aboard. Among the American dead were US Congressman Larry McDonald.
When Stanislav Petrov heard the satellite alarm signal an incoming missile, there were plenty of reasons to believe it was a genuine attack.
And yet, he didn’t.
Questions flowed through Petrov’s mind as he sat watching his screen throughout the night…
Why did they only send one missile in the first wave?
Why were there only four in the second wave?
If the US were going to strike why not knock out all the Soviet bases with missile launching capability?
Do they not expect a retaliatory strike?
This doesn’t add up?
Despite having technology scream a warning at him, Petrov decided this was a false alarm. He sat by waiting to see what would happen next and nothing did. When the computer said four more missiles were on the way, he again chose to override the system and dismiss the warning as false.
Despite all the reports, this is a great example of why technology will never, and should never, completely replace people in the workplace.
Thanks for reading.
Michelle is the co-founder and COO of PepTalk, the digital wellbeing solution that unlocks the potential of teams. She sits on board of the award-winning non-profit Sailing into Wellness and is a founding board member of SERI (Social Enterprise Republic of Ireland), alongside being an advisor for several non-profits and tech start-ups.