The fu­ture of work

As technology ex­pands, we must fu­ture-proof our work­force with durable, por­ta­ble, trans­fer­able skills

The Expositor (Brantford) - - FORUM - R. MICHAEL WAR­REN r.michael.war­ren@gmail.com

Since the dawn of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, the fu­ture of work has been a source of anx­i­ety. Never has that con­cern been more acute than it is to­day.

The cre­ation of the job as we know it — reg­u­lar hours, spe­cific pay and de­fined tasks — was a by-prod­uct of that rev­o­lu­tion. Since then technology has mostly in­flu­enced how ef­fi­ciently work is done, not the def­i­ni­tion of the job it­self.

But to­day the fu­ture of work is be­ing pro­foundly changed by an “in­tel­li­gence rev­o­lu­tion” that’s de­vel­op­ing at warp speed. It’s fu­elled by a com­bi­na­tion of au­to­ma­tion, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing and ro­bots. Short-term con­tracts and free­lance work (the “gig econ­omy”) is rapidly re­plac­ing per­ma­nent jobs.

Are we sim­ply ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an­other tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion? The ev­i­dence sug­gests it’s dif­fer­ent this time. And we are not pre­pared for the new work world that lies ahead.

Soft­ware is al­ready dis­rupt­ing our econ­omy. Uber is ba­si­cally a soft­ware tool that al­lows the com­pany to of­fer an at­trac­tive car-shar­ing al­ter­na­tive to reg­u­lar taxi cabs. Uber doesn’t own any cars and yet it’s now the big­gest taxi com­pany in the world.

Airbnb is now the largest ho­tel com­pany in the world, and yet it doesn’t own any prop­er­ties. It is an on­line hos­pi­tal­ity ser­vice that en­ables peo­ple to join the shar­ing so­ci­ety by leas­ing out short-term lodg­ing.

Both these soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tions are chang­ing the work world in these sec­tors. Thou­sands of full-time taxi driv­ers around the globe have lost their jobs to part-time Uber driv­ers with their own cars, whom the cab­bies say com­pete un­fairly. Since it was founded in 2008, about 150 mil­lion trav­ellers have stayed in three mil­lion Airbnb list­ings in 191 coun­tries. That’s thou­sands of ho­tel jobs lost to home­own­ers mak­ing ex­tra money with a spare room.

Com­put­ers have be­come ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter at un­der­stand­ing the world around them. Us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence a com­puter beat the best Go player in the world 10 years ear­lier than ex­pected.

IBM’s Wat­son is an ad­vanced com­puter that di­ag­noses can­cer four times more ac­cu­rately and faster than hu­mans. It pro­vides ba­sic legal ad­vice within sec­onds with a high level of ac­cu­racy. The im­pli­ca­tions for the med­i­cal and legal pro­fes­sions are un­nerv­ing.

Au­ton­o­mous cars are com­ing. They will dis­rupt the whole au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try.

Peo­ple in cities won’t need to own cars any­more. They’ll call a car on their phone to take them wher­ever they want to go.

Far fewer cars will be needed. There will be fewer ac­ci­dents. Tra­di­tional car com­pa­nies will face bank­ruptcy. It will un­der­mine the cur­rent car in­surance busi­ness model.

There’s a pro­to­type med­i­cal de­vice called Tri­corder that works with your phone. It takes a retina scan and blood and breath sam­ples. It can then an­a­lyze dozens of dis­ease biomark­ers and pro­vide peo­ple any­where in the world with cheap ac­cess to ba­sic med­i­cal anal­y­sis. Spe­cial­ists will still be needed, but what about fam­ily doc­tors?

The fi­nan­cial sec­tor will un­dergo more changes over the next 10 years than over the last 100. On­line banks and dig­i­tal wealth man­age­ment plat­forms are grow­ing. It’s es­ti­mated that robo-ad­vis­ers will have $20 tril­lion un­der man­age­ment by 2020.

More con­cern­ing is the like­li­hood of com­put­ers be­com­ing in­tel­lec­tu­ally su­pe­rior to hu­mans over the next decade. They will learn from ex­pe­ri­ence and evolve much faster than hu­mans. Be­yond their im­pact on work, it raises the ques­tion of how we teach these crea­tures right from wrong — in our own self-de­fence.

A new re­port co-au­thored by Deloitte Canada and the Hu­man Re­sources Pro­fes­sion­als As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada ad­dresses these daunt­ing de­vel­op­ments head on. “The changes we are see­ing are noth­ing less than his­toric” says Scott Allison, vice-pres­i­dent of pub­lic af­fairs for HRPA. “Gov­ern­ments and ed­u­ca­tors have to take a skills-first, not jobs-first, ap­proach.” They stress these ur­gent rec­om­men­da­tions for busi­ness and gov­ern­ments:

• “Mod­ern­ize pro­vin­cial labour laws and so­cial safety nets to re­flect the re­al­ity of the gig econ­omy”. On­tario has al­ready moved in this di­rec­tion de­spite strong busi­ness re­sis­tance.

• “Re­think uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come”. On­tario is launch­ing a ba­sic an­nual in­come pi­lot project in three cities next year.

• “Reim­age how we or­ga­nize our schools, from phys­i­cal setup to the school year it­self.” Greater em­pha­sis should be placed on crit­i­cal think­ing, men­tal agility and team­work.

• “Em­power Cana­dian work­ers to man­age their ca­reers and thrive in the new world of work.”

Their un­der­ly­ing ad­vice to in­di­vid­ual work­ers? Try to de­velop one uni­ver­sal ca­pac­ity that is durable, por­ta­ble and trans­fer­able. That uni­ver­sal ca­pac­ity is not sim­ply the ca­pac­ity to search for in­for­ma­tion. “It is the ca­pac­ity to make sense of what we find and rec­og­nize op­por­tu­nity and make de­ci­sions that lead to ef­fec­tive agency.”

If this wide­spread work­place trans­for­ma­tion is to be ben­e­fi­cial, we have to stop de­bat­ing how many jobs will be lost or gained, and start fu­ture­proof­ing our work­force. R. Michael War­ren is a former cor­po­rate di­rec­tor, On­tario deputy min­is­ter, TTC chief gen­eral man­ager and Canada Post CEO.

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