Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Serious questions about the future of work

Having just completed a series of alumni talks in Melbourne and Sydney on the popular topic of 'the future of work,' I am left feeling the weight of the topic, given the questions that arose in both of these large and growing Australian cities.

Though attendees were generally upbeat and lively over drinks and nibbles, the Q&A after both talks skipped the 'gee whiz' factor of automation and artificial intelligence technologies and centered on the socio-economic concerns of systemic job loss, structural fault lines and uncertainty going forward into a future where technology may not produce as many jobs as it takes away.

Reading the Financial Review over breakfast, I found Jennifer Hewett's observation matches the mood of responses to my talk. She observes that, along with the benefits of global economic growth and development, '...the dislocation being felt by many in the West due to changes in technology, demand, competition, education and jobs is also real.  For all the advantages, disruptive business models and globalisation can become highly personalised and painful concepts.' (The Australian Financial Review, 27 July 2016, p. 2)

Australia's pain and job loss is more about its reliance on commodities like coal and other extractive industries than it is about technology per se, but the fundamental fear is that when jobs disappear people feel adrift.  When we talk about the future of 'work,' we are also in essence talking about the future of jobs in a world where banks don't ask about the work you do when they are assessing you for a mortgage.  What they really want to know is 'what is your job?' and how will it support your financial future?

In my talks on the future of work, I have to refer to Brynjolfsson and McAfee's book, The Second Machine Age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies.  Our Aussie audience actually illustrated a key point made by these authors, namely that the act of asking questions is what will continue to distinguish human intelligence from artificial intelligence.  As they say:

'Computers are not useless, but they're still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions.  That ability still seems to be uniquely human, and still highly valuable.  We predict that people who are good at idea creation will continue to have a comparative advantage over digital labor for some time to come, and will find themselves in demand.  In other words, we believe that employers now and for some time to come will, when looking for talent, follow the advice attributed to the Enlightenment sage Voltaire: "Judge a man by his questions, not his answers."  (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014, p. 192).

We are proud of our graduates for the questions they are asking.  For me, their questions remind me of how little we still understand about the impact of technologies on human lives.
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For an excellent overview of the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on work, see the recent special report, 'March of the Machines' in The Economist, 25 June - 1 July, 2016.

1 comment:

Ammie Sthitwaroj said...

Great post, Darl! I've been thinking about the same for a while. How are we going to help those who will be left behind by the rapid advancement of technology? Will this trend along with globalisation fuel the rise of populism and xenophobia?

Each society will probably react differently. The art of asking questions is incredibly discouraged, let alone forbidden, in many eastern cultures. They'll likely to find it more challenging to cope with the technology disruption. It reminded me of the Red Queen's race.