Keeping humans in the loops

The future of work is at the heart of every major socioeconomic or political debate raging around the world today. Whether they’re about Brexit, border walls, migrants landing on the beaches of Southern Europe or the concentration of wealth among the 1 per cent, all of them are really about the nature and distribution of work. From work, and what is derived from it – money – comes power. From its absence stems powerlessness.

This long-evident truth is ever truer in 2019, precisely because people understand that work is changing more quickly than ever before. Given that the stakes are so high, the arguments are fiercer.

And the number-one reason why work is changing so quickly? Science-fiction style technologies that are becoming more and more real, such as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, augmented reality and gene editing. Many people are excited by what they see emerging, but many aren’t. Many people are scared that what little grip they’ve had on the economic ladder is slipping…

The prevailing feeling that many people have is that human work is “going away”, and that we’re all doomed. Study after study – most famously Oxford University’s 2013 report that suggested almost half of US employment is at risk of machine-based replacement – has laid out a bleak view of a post-work world.

The future of work must have a focus on wealth creation and distribution

Technology has clearly played a role in the widening gulf between winners and runners up (it would be impolite to say losers) apparent to all but the most ideological of eyes. Those who have kept up with the rise of automation and arbitrage have done well. Conversely, those who haven’t have seen their share of the spoils become thinner and thinner.

Placing the means of production in the hands of more and more people is, therefore, the surest route to the economic efficiency that remains key, but also the social harmony that is important to ordinary people and elites alike.

And of course, the means of production are now literally in everyone’s hands. With a smartphone, a teenager in Preston can trade Yeezys, a semi-retired teacher in Cornwall can tutor an A-level student in Bristol, a stay-at-home mum in Coventry can sell custom jewellery while her baby is taking its afternoon nap. Spreading more of these types of opportunities (and the ability to create them as much as use them) into more people’s hands will address the needs of wealth creation and wealth distribution.

The fact that opportunities such as these are spreading is core to our view that there is a future for human work. Of course, the work we do will be different in that future, but a world where all work is done by machines is a recurring (and wrong-headed) fantasy which resurfaces at moments of great technological change.

The jobs of the fourth industrial revolution  

In our recent reports 21 Jobs of the Future and 21 More Jobs of the Future, we have laid out some of the types of work we see emerging over the next 10 years. They range from the low-tech and semi-obvious – such as a walker/talker – to the high-tech and hard-to-fathom – a genetic diversity officer, for example. All of these roles, though, are emerging at a time when the commercial value of human skills is being radically reassessed.

The fear abroad at the moment is a product of a world changing at an unprecedented speed and of a swathe of people (not necessarily always older people, but certainly often older people) who are aging out of it.

2019 marks an important point where how people and organisations engage with the future of their work will determine how bright their future is. Keeping humans in the loops – not simply the loop of a machine algorithm, as AI developers talk about, but the loops of economic and societal systems which underpin functioning societies – is the great task ahead of us. The leaders who emerge at this moment of profound change will be those who seize the incredible opportunities new technologies are generating, and who spread them as widely – to humans – as possible.


 by Ben Pring, Director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work

www.cognizant.com/futureofwork

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