FUTURE WORLD OF WORK: ONLY HUMAN?
Machines that process data much faster than humans are making companies more efficient and jobs obsolete. So what will the human workforce of the future look like?
Artificial intelligence… machine learning… robotics… smart factories.
Companies of all sizes, across all sectors, are hurtling towards a new technological age, with dire warnings of the consequences of being left behind. And while decision-makers get to grips with revolutions in their industries, speculation over the future of the workforce has become increasingly frenzied.
As one headline put it: “47% of Jobs Will Disappear in the next 25 Years.”
Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s not quite the end of the employee. The Oxford Martin School researchers had focused only on low-skilled workers, and assumed they would “reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation”.
Likewise, when McKinsey Global Institute suggested up to 800m global workers could lose their jobs to artificial intelligence (AI) and automation by 2030, it also concluded: “Realising automation’s full potential requires people and technology to work hand in hand.”
The technology will undoubtedly change the nature of many jobs. But as Anthony Behan, an industry leader within IBM’s Watson IoT Division, puts it: “Artificial intelligence is not a thing.”
Behan echoes IBM’s boss Ginni Rometty in preferring the term “augmented intelligence”. He explains: “It makes for great drama to say the robots will take over the world. The tech will change the nature of our civilisation - it’s that profound. It will change our relationship to work and the types of work we do but you still need to guide these machines. There’s no substitute for human intelligence.”
This might sound strange from a man who works on a cognitive platform that broke creative ground in becoming the first to ‘create’ a movie trailer - for the horror film Morgan - having learned the formula by analysing 100 others. Watson took just 24 hours to select the key moments for the trailer, a process that often takes between 10 and 30 days.
But Behan’s point is illustrated by the fact it still required a human editor to cut any dud scenes from Watson’s selection and piece the remainder into a coherent whole.
“Augmented intelligence means you believe these machines are there to supplement and compliment human intelligence,” he says. “Thinking practically and pragmatically, these things won’t work unless you tell them to work. That’s the reality.
“That’s not to say they aren’t extraordinarily powerful, and with great power comes great responsibility. We have tremendous obligations and data as we design and build and deploy these things.”
That’s at the forefront of unions’ minds as they fight for workers’ influence over the use of AI, at a time when the transformation of the traditional workplace is contributing to declining membership.
“Data collection and artificial intelligence are the next frontier for the labour movement,” says Philip Jennings, who heads the UNI Global Union. “Just as unions established wage, hour, and safety standards during the Industrial Revolution, it is urgent that we set new benchmarks for the Digital Revolution.”
UNI has drawn up a list of 10 principles for ethical AI, demanding transparent use of the technology, including workers’ consultation on its development, an “ethical black box” to ensure accountability, and guaranteed human-in-command use.
The organisation hosts its 5th World Congress alongside the International Business Festival, from June 17 to 20. And Jennings is determined to take a positive message to Liverpool.
He says the congress theme of Making It Happen aims to “give a sense of a union movement on the front foot, taking the offensive, having a hopeful message, a message of change but a message that we can change things on the ground”.
Away from the union congress, both Jennings and Behan will address questions around the Future World of Work from the Festival’s main stage, as part of a strand of talks developed in partnership with Culture Liverpool.
From May through to July, artists commissioned by Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology will work with employers to produce a “series of provocations” addressing what the development of AI means for society.
And the idea resonates with Jennings: “They want to be seen as a place of new thinking, of creative solutions of how we help people face this revolution.”
But employers need as much help as workers, if an MIT/Deloitte survey is anything to go by. Two years ago, it recorded 70% of 3,700 global business leaders saying they would require a “significantly new or different talent base to compete effectively in the digital economy”.
A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development impact report into AI, robotics and automation suggests: “There will be an increased need for people, both workers and consumers, who are able to work and interact with these technologies. For instance, there are various reports which suggest that the lack of in-house AI skills is holding back organisations from implementing the technology within their workplace.”
Unsurprisingly, the institute sees HR – and learning and development - professionals as critical to ensuring changes are positive, and not just by ensuring businesses have the necessary in-house talent.
“It is incumbent upon HR professionals to put the emphasis back on people and create work environments where technology and people can co-exist… making jobs more meaningful,” says the report.
And the report has a key message for senior managers: “It is crucial that employers involve their people in times of technological implementation. Employees should not view this change as something that is ‘done to them’ – but ‘done with them’.”
It’s not just large, cutting-edge employers who need to grasp this, warns Behan.
He says: “If you’re a regular producer today – a bakery for example – those kinds of companies have suppliers that will provide them with marketing services, accounting, delivery services. They need to be thinking about who their suppliers are and whether they’re the right kind. There are new tech and tools enabling them to reduce the costs of that particular element of the supply chain.”
While this might sound grim for employees in certain industries, Behan argues that businesses will still need flexible employees they can “cross-train”. And he envisages new forms of employment to develop, adding: “These tools will create opportunities for new businesses to emerge.”
* The Future World of Work, Futures Stage, June 12. Anthony Behan argues we must get over our AI fears and prejudices if we want the tech to help mankind flourish.
* The Future World of Work: Advancing Humans, Futures Stage, June 21. Philip Jennings explains how today's decision-makers hold the key to a sustainable, empowering future, calling for ethical AI and social justice.
* More on the Future World of Work strand.