INTRO: 47 IS KILLING!
In a 2017 study two scholars, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne from Oxford University, suggest 47 percent of USA jobs could be automated away in the next 20 years by the new tech forces: computers and robots, fueled by Artificial Intelligence ( AI), guided by ever stronger algorithms. The number was all over the media, raising modest hysteria about our jobless future. 47% is a panicking number indeed. But when we read the study itself nuances emerge. First of all, the authors base their figure on interviews with machine-learning experts, asking them to estimate the likelihood that seventy carefully selected occupations could be automated away in coming years. Then they extended the list to many more occupations and made educated guesses. That’s how the 47% came up. The reasoning though is not watertight. Ask hairdressers, electricians, politicians, social influencers to estimate the impact of their jobs, and exaggeration will come naturally to them. Ask machine-learning experts how many jobs ‘their’ AI can make obsolete and chances are that they will exaggerate as well. So, 47% might be overdone. Also, the authors focused in their interviews on what is technically possible when it comes to the new tech forces and job-destruction, avoiding the more realistic question of how society, its workers, politicians and regulators will react to these unheard-off job losses, and how they will try to bring the 47 percent down. What’s technically possible does not equal what will happen. Nevertheless, the die of fear has been cast.
Follow-up studies note that the AI-led new tech forces (New Tech from now on) most of the time will not devour jobs in its entirety. More often they will automate ‘only’ certain tasks of a job. Of course, when New Tech takes over enough of a job’s tasks, the whole job will change beyond recognition, even disappear. We have seen that happening at the car-manufacturing conveyor belts, where now hardly any human being is left behind the machines, running on their own 24/7/365 in lights-out factories. Only some maintenance staff and long-distance supervisors are left. Right now, we can expect similar full job-destruction In China, where leading phone-manufacturing company Foxconn — they probably produced your iPhone — threatens to replace a substantial part of its worker’s army (1.3 million on the payroll) by robots, as a reaction to human employees complaining about inhumane working conditions, culminating in suicides out of despair.
So New Tech has the power to drive tremendous amounts of jobs going down the drain. Other jobs will ‘only’ be disrupted. Take mine: teaching. The heart of teaching consists of impromptu communication, full of unexpected twists as you never can prepare for all the surprising moments each class has in store for you. Teaching is filled with series of tiny decision-making moments. (For example: Is the afternoon classroom too hot and sunny, the mood amongst the students too tired to bring up a new demanding subject? Better wait till the next fresh morning?) These kind of decisions are difficult to code into the algorithmic language New Tech lives by. I, as a human being, am much better in sensing atmosphere. Teaching in general will not be taken over by New Tech anytime soon.
This though is not the end conclusion. We’ve all watched the rise of online webinars enforced by Covid19, offering opportunities to serve many more students at the same moment than possible in a physical class. Here New Tech has been pretty helpful, facilitating the necessary Turn to Virtual, that we all have managed to embrace. But it won’t imply physical school teaching will become obsolete any time or place soon. We are deeply attached to its serendipitous hallway encounters, its parties, protests and love affairs. Yet, New Tech will disrupt our traditional practices and definitions of teaching. Take, for instance, the traditional educational frame of 45 minutes teaching, then a 15 minutes break and then repeat. Copying this offline pattern into virtual class turns out to be cruelly exhausting. Zoom fatigue, even burnout lurk. New formats must be developed. Or consider exams. When I started teaching some decades ago, exams were held as personal conversations. Due to education’s massification since then, multiple-choice exams are introduced: more cost & time-efficient, less prejudice-prone than humans, but lacking personal interaction. Old-school examination tasks have been predominantly automated away. Most teachers don’t mourn the demise of them: they were tedious. This job tasks destruction actually opens the opportunity to focus on more rewarding parts of their jobs. Here New Tech’s disruption empowers.
To summarize, New Tech will destroy jobs but ‘only’ disrupt others. These disruptions can be painful but also empowering — they even can be both at the same time. Some will dread New Tech as it might push them into the category of poor un-hopefuls. Some will criticize New Tech as an utterly unfair epitomizer of exploitive capitalism. Others will feel New Tech’s fortunate winds under their wings. Still others will be made astoundingly rich by New Tech. All will wander through the future landscape of work. And create our future society.
FOUR DECISIVE DIMENSIONS
Not all jobs are created equal. What ones will flourish and enrich? What ones will come to look like modern slavery? What are the demarcation lines between them?
Only five years ago, the general opinion was that low-skilled jobs would be lost first. The extensive media-covered loss of blue collar manufacturing jobs in the USA’s Midlands supported the opinion. Soon though, the picture turned out to be more nuanced. Also series of high-skilled jobs — tax accountants, administrators, radiologists, paralegals — are experiencing changing tides. In contrast to this, several low-skilled jobs in the service industry — waiters, cleaners, guards, lower ranks of hospital staff — mainly stayed safe, though their salaries often see no increases.
As a consequence, a new insight rose: the tasks New Tech takes over first do not so much follow the lines between low-skilled and high-skilled jobs. They follow the lines between routine and non-routine tasks. Recalculating tax administration paperwork is high-skilled but also routine, and therefore prone to automation. Same with radiologists. With robot’s growing capacities to detect maladies, from potentially troublesome skin moles to cancerous spots within your body, they will automate away radiologist’s high-skilled yet considerably routine core competence. Surprisingly in contrast to this, we see at the low end the skills continuum, jobs that are so multi-tasking and agile that New Tech is unable to grab them with their algorithms and leave them alone: garbage collectors, nail studio workers, dog care guardians. They are saved by the non-routine characters of their jobs. Actually, cohorts of jobs, that traditionally were considered low-skilled and low-status we now see climbing upscale because they are so non-routine and ‘finger’-dexterous, that they can claim a new respect: upscale butchers, bartenders who craft signature cocktails combining them with emotional intelligent social serving skills, arborists and massage therapists, bicycle mechanics and floral arrangers, furniture restorers and even tree huggers. New Tech won’t touch these masters of craft.
How people react when their jobs encounter New Tech, also differs. A substantial series of low-skilled routine jobs fall in the DDD-category: dull, dirty, dangerous. Take maintenance work at oil platforms at sea. The job implies climbing the platform constellation, high up in the air or below sea level, to assess and repair rust spots. Now drones with recognition software and monitoring equipment do the DDD job. That’s generally appreciated as progress. But not when retraining programs can’t find new jobs for those displaced. They will feel stuck, angry and treated unfairly.
On other occasions, people will appreciate when AI & its companions take tedious job tasks off their hands and minds. To go back to my teaching profession, I actually am happy that my exam marking tasks are now handled by smart software. It opens my time for more satisfying, meaningful tasks. Every job has ‘peripheral’ components, like my tedious examination days. When they are automated away, it feels like a relief. However, when New Tech touches job components that are dear to its practitioners, people will react upset. Then the core of their professional tasks is attacked. That’s a sensitive matter. It affects a person’s job identity.
When we want to assess the conquest routes that New Tech will follow through our future landscape of work, and how it will affect people, the distinction between ‘skilled and non-skilled’ (1) is helpful, but the distinction between ‘routine versus non-routine’ (2) predicts better. When we want to assess employees’ reactions when New Tech enters their jobs, the distinction between ‘peripheral’ and ‘core’ (3) has explanatory value. Another relevant one is the distinction between ‘replacement’ versus ‘empowerment’ (4). Will New Tech primarily replace parts of my job — the peripheral parts or the essential ones? And will it enable me to do my job better?
These four dimensions are the four main trenches running through the landscape of our future work. From there New Tech will annihilate and disrupt, enrich and empower our jobs. Conquering or alienating our hearts and minds.
LOSERS AND WINNERS : LITERATURE
Three books together give a dynamic overview of winners and losers in the future landscape of work.
‘The Second Machine Age’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
‘The Second Machine Age. Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is an award-winning publication overarching the landscape of work. It starts with a description of the First Machine Age: Western Industrial Revolution, when steam engines and later electric machines took heaps of heavy physical work from our ancestor’s shoulders, many of them farmers. It helped agricultural yields to magnify beyond pre-industrial imagination. Many farmers, their sons and daughters, jobless at the countryside, left for the cities where they worked behind other machines, the factory ones. In the wake of this grand transformation came severe worker’s exploitation, the rise of the proletariat, Marxism and intense societal upheavals. But later on also prosperity, the welfare state and consumerism.
In the Second Machines Age, which we have entered now, New Tech starts dominating the landscape. First via computers and software programs, now with cloud computing and AI’s algorithms, next with the Internet of Things and face recognition monitoring tools. They will speed up transformations and ‘new normals’ that pale those from the First Machine Age. Each machine back-then had to be physically produced which decelerates speed and spread. The leading ‘machines’ now are basically software. In contrast to trains and conveyor belts, they can be copied with a series of clicks. Brynjolfsson and McAfee speak about the ‘the digitization’ of everything. Others talk about software eating everything — doing so revolutionary quickly. As a consequence, New Tech in its incomparable might, will not only reign over our working lives but over society in general. In ‘Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow’ celebrity philosopher-anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari even approaches New Tech as our new gods.
‘Average Is Over’ by Tylor Cowen
How are the ‘real’ people faring under these new gods? Who amongst them will manage to prosper, who will perish? Tylor Cowen documents the answer in his book ‘Average Is Over’. He knows how to summarize the essence: “The key question will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? If your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer you want to address that mismatch. Evermore people are starting to fall one side of the divide or the other. That is why average is over.” As a consequence, we can expect growing economic divides, intensifying social inequalities and the rise of a culture of anger, distrust and cynicism. Two books endorse and add to Cowen’s insights — their titles are telling enough: ‘Rise of the Robots. Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future’ by Martin Ford and ‘Humans Need Not To Apply, A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’ by Jerry Kaplan. Both are authoritatively well-documented.
‘Humans Are Underrated’ by Geoff Colvin
In ‘Humans Are Underrated’ Geoff Colvin takes another track through our future landscape of work. Also here the subtitle is revealing: ‘What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.’ It is all about empathy. We all know what empathy is, how it feels and deeply enriches. Our bodies and minds unreservedly react to it. And we automatically sense when they are authentic and sincere. In spite of the blessings that New Tech can bring to our lives, it can’t live up to human beings when it comes to sensing and radiating empathy and hospitality. Our DNA is hardwired around it.
Empathy workers — in our hospitals and hotels, in our schools and shops, in retail and restaurants — therefore have good chances to prosper in the future landscape of work as well. New Tech might be able to teach their robots how to smile, but it will be a derivative, a copy of the real thing 😊. It will lack the natural spontaneity, depth, and impact that humans convey. Capturing ‘a little bit of that human touch’ in algorithms turns out to be devilishly difficult. (Just like Bruce Springsteen sings the song like no New Tech will ever can). It is one of the reasons why I feel fortunate to be a professor at Hotel School of Distinction, EUHT Barcelona and see the students there being taught the finesses of human hospitality and empathy. Their skills are not only of key importance for hotel business and tourist industry. They are needed in much broader areas of our (working) lives: from sales to education, from fitness to health. In the near future I see my students even collaborate with nerdy ict-professionals, teaching them how to add deeper layers of human sensitivity to their concepts and devices.
Covid forces very many of us to shift to remote work. But not all. Remote work is impossible for a broad category of lower-class workers. Think cleaners, guards, waiters, nurses and other hospital staff, substantial amounts of them not properly insured or not living in richer welfare states. They belong to the precariat, occupying jobs without a proper safety net, and understandably prone to anger and distrust. (Guy Standing’s ‘The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class’ is another top book when it comes to understanding our future landscape of work — and the whole of society for that matter.)
Many readers of this article though will be middle-class remote workers. For them, Covid has less precarious, more mid-term predicaments in store. These start with Zoom-fatigue in an era where nothing can be easily settled around offices’ coffee machines. The technologies that enable us to work from home, also have ballooned communication. Which is a lot to digest behind the screen we watch much more than we watch our children. Working from home, as many do, now often boils down to living at work. This is not easy — especially under cramped conditions, solid workloads, and when you are really unlucky, remote micromanagers hovering above you.
They all are the unpleasant consequences of working under Covid-conditions experienced by many, though not by all. On a deeper, less visible, and more latent level, the connection with our work environment as-we-knew-it is weakening. More stressed out under the new circumstances, with more lower-back pains and ‘interruption rage’ as new lifestyle ingredients, many employees (though not all!) might feel alienated from their job tasks and companies. How many of you working from working have had a conversation with a line manager about their well-being? As a consequence, Covid might have made working relationships more transactional than before. From both sides. Employees might feel less commitment now that the lines are predominantly online. And when employees now do their jobs from home, companies might ask themselves whether there are no cheaper alternatives for them from somewhere else? Be it the AI-empowered robot from the virtual world. Or a lower-paid professional from a developing country.