Thought Leader: Rapid robots & happy humans

Many jobs are not only being outsourced to people in other countries. They are also being “other-sourced” to automated workers. Jared Weiner, futurist at consultants Weiner Edrich & Brown, predicts we’ll see more white-collar jobs lost to software algorithms, intelligent computers and robotics. While automation has already had significant impact on manufacturing, we are just beginning to see the impact of artificial intelligence on the traditional professions.
Weiner notes that the financial services industry is becoming increasingly other-sourced and is experiencing modern industrial revolution of its own.
Financial analysts have been partially replaced with quantitative analytic systems and floor traders are now competing with computerised trading algorithms. Mutual funds and traditional portfolio managers have lost assets in recent years to ETFs (exchange-traded funds), many of which offer completely automated strategies.
According to MIT economist David Autor, the jobs that are currently being lost involve middle-skilled cognitive and productive activities. These tasks follow clear and easily understood procedures that can reliably be transcribed into software instructions or subcontracted to overseas labour.
Autor writes that labour markets worldwide are rapidly becoming polarised and he sees clustering of job opportunities at opposite ends of the skills spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum are low-paying service-oriented jobs that require personal interaction and the manipulation of machinery in unpredictable environments. Examples might include driving vehicle in traffic, cooking food in busy kitchen, or taking care of cranky pre-schoolers. Unless people decide to freight their toddlers to India for cheaper childcare, these tasks will still need to be performed locally.
To the extent that many service jobs involve human interaction, they also require skills such as empathy and interpersonal communication. Good employees can see things from the customer’s perspective.
At the other end of the spectrum are jobs that require creativity, ambiguity and high levels of personal training and judgement. These jobs tend to pay well, because they require skill sets that are more difficult to replicate.
The job opportunities of the future require either high cognitive skills, or well-developed personal skills and common sense. In nutshell, people will need to be either “smart” or “nice” to be successful (preferably both).
Work will always be about people. It is about finding what other people want and need – and then creating practical solutions to fulfil those desires.
Right now our basic assumptions about how work gets done are changing. It is less about having fixed location and schedule, and more about thoughtful and engaged activity.
There’s blurring of distinctions between work, play and professional development. The ways that we measure productivity will be less based on time spent and more based upon the value of the ideas and the quality of the output. People will have much better awareness of when good work is being done.
We’ll see some tradeoffs. The old model of work provided an enormous level of predictability. People had sense of job security and knew how much they would earn on monthly basis. This gave them confidence in their ability to maintain large amounts of debt. Our consumer economy thrived on this system for more than half century.
The new trends for the workplace have significantly less built-in certainty. We will all need to rethink, redefine and broaden our sources of economic security. To the extent that people are developing broader range of skills, we will also become more resilient and capable of adapting to change.
Luddites should take notice – computers just might push us to do work that is meaningful and enables us to become better people. The activities that make us human – thinking, dreaming, learning, communicating and feeling – are the most difficult skills to program. In contest of “man versus machine”, people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come. M

James H Lee is an independent futures consultant and writer based in Wilmington, Delaware. He is the author of Resilience and the Future of Everyday Life.

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