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  • Brianna Welsh

How Will Work Change After COVID?


Covid-19 has turned the entire working world on its head.


In a few short months, we’ve had to totally rethink our “work”. Global lockdowns have propelled unemployment to historic levels, social distancing has exposed fragile infrastructure, and home-life and work-life have melded into one, leading to unprecedented levels of technological reliance.


Where do humans fit in with machines? Is the future of work an automated or human one?


These questions beget many others: what does it mean to work? Do we all need to work? And how can we help everyone adapt to rapidly changing environments? Prior to Covid, the threat of “technological unemployment” was looming, but recent events have only accelerated these questions.


Make no mistake, the “future of work” will be different than today—but in many ways, it will be better. Gone are the days of the “dirty, dangerous and dull”.


We will have a dematerialized and demonetized future, where the option to work will be based on purpose rather than payment. So how do we make this transition?

ACCEPTING TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT


Technological unemployment has been a threat for time immemorial. Just take a look at the news headline from 1961 below. Look familiar?


The robots have been “coming for our jobs” for 200 years.

With every new advancement, comes more dramatic warnings of human obsolescence. Though instead of crippling us, technology has transformed us, elevating our quality of life the world over. Bank tellers were largely replaced by ATMs, encyclopedias were supplanted by Google, and taxi dispatchers matured into Uber.


Technology has afforded a transition in the workforce from brawns to brains, leaving the heavy lifting and heavy storage to the machines. This has historically freed up space for humans to focus on their unique advantages: cognition and emotion.


This pattern has been true, up until the advent of exponential technologies driving the 21st century. In 2013, pioneering work from the University of Oxford projected job losses due to automation at a striking 47%. And a 2017 report by McKinsey & Company found that as of 2015, $2.7 trillion out of $5.1 trillion in labor, was already automatable. This begs the question: is the Exponential Era different than previous times?


There is indeed a new type of threat: 21st century machines can now be substituted for human brains as well as brawn—now even threatening professional jobs. The reality is: robots are much more sophisticated than they were 40 years ago. The “Second Machine Age” enables automation of cognitive tasks that make humans and software-driven machines substitutes, rather than complements. And machines don’t get tired, they don’t get sick, and they don’t demand self-actualization.


So let’s start with the premise that many (if not most) jobs will disappear. This will require an entire reconception of the workplace model.


Coincidentally as we entered this next decade of exponential growth, we endured a complete shutdown of global scale. Covid-19 has been a forced reset; a jolt out of the autopilot. As SU faculty Peter Xing commented, our transition to a highly-automated society will occur sooner than planned, but in fact, it will both save money and create opportunity.


For many, this hiatus from the norm has afforded a chance to rethink old frameworks and curate new ones. What does the world really need in the future? How do we envision a prosperous future for all? What do we care about? And what would we do if we had the opportunity, the skills, and the time?


We hear so much talk about the future of work, but not the future of life.


So what if we considered flipping the conversation from technological unemployment to fulfilling employment? How can we uplift the entire work marketplace, enabling people to leapfrog traditional career ladders and into rewarding, esteemed work?

JOBS GOING EXTINCT: WHAT COMES NEXT?


In response to fears of automation in the early ‘60s, Lyndon B. Johnson wrote: “if we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displace. Instead, it can remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before”.


Let’s face it: many of us did not dream of our current careers when we were kids. We landed here because of a need to provide and to survive. And our life experiences, skills or cognitive ability limited our options.

But what if we didn’t need to work to survive? What if the profits earned from automation helped finance a living subsidy for those it displaced? Effectively, a tax on robots.


Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang notoriously campaigned on the notion of universal basic income (UBI), which only months ago was considered fringe and progressive. Fast forward to a post-Covid spring, and we’re experiencing the largest experiment of UBI in history—even Pope Francis agrees! This is a step towards a post-Capitalist society, moving away from a Mad Max future, and towards a Star Trek one.


The world is already being demonetized: the sharing economy, autonomous transportation, the dematerialization of energy, education, healthcare and food. Supported by a basic UBI, the income you need to live comfortably will be substantially lower. And how and where we work is already changing: de-localize with virtual reality (VR), and you can now hire anyone with Internet access. Even Twitter just told its employees they can work from home forever.


Now, the distinction between employment for living and employment for satisfaction is critical. Those working to live, might not need to.


But for those yearning for fulfillment, technology can help here too. As humans, we need to feel like we are contributing; we’re hard wired for it. Imagine a future where everyone were working in jobs they aspired for, and basic needs were met—would fear of the future be so rampant?


In a world of abundant basic needs being met, what is “work”, might be reclassified. Community support, caring for loved ones, creative pursuits and the gaming economy, all could be dignified as prestigious careers.

JOB REPLACEMENT: HOW DO WE RESKILL AND REHIRE?


In addition to a reclassification of social work, new professional jobs will be created. McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) projects that within the next decade, 8 – 9% of employees will work in categories that do not yet exist today. So how do we provide meaning for those who want to find new work?


What technological unemployment gives us the opportunity to do, is alleviate the burden of opportunity cost. If you’re already unemployed, you have time to discover new skills, to sharpen existing talents, and to explore ways to contribute meaningfully in a digital economy.


This is where upskilling and reskilling will come in.


Amazon employees can already level up through a 16-week certificate program that helps them learn new skills to access higher wages, while keeping their job security. Hodges-Mace is exploring chatbots that can deliver micro-learning classes on demand according to skills required. Imagine a rookie salesperson visits a client, and upon arrival, her chatbot rings her mobile with tailored insights about the client’s latest strategy. How empowered would she feel?


And consider how in-demand specialized medical skills are, yet the ever-present shortage in technical qualifications leads to structural unemployment. What if a motivated nurse could slip on a pair of Augmented Reality (AR) glasses to be guided through a routine examination or technical procedure? VIEW technology employs AR to upskill workers using voice instructions and visual cues that overlay procedures in a worker’s field of vision. Talk about on-the-job-training!


Or for those new to digitization, AI can help reskill the very workforce it displaces. Shimmy, a New York-based fashion technology company, trains its garment workers with 3D technologies and AI-based programs to level up their earning potential and make them less vulnerable to automation. To onboard new employees and upskill older ones, simulation tools leveraging gamification are also beginning to arise. And to incentivize new ideas, skills competitions akin to the famous Hackathon model, could challenge players to create a product or learn a new skill while testing their aptitude. Winners receive secured positions at a sponsoring company; a utopian spin on Ready Player One.

And for those seeking new careers entirely, computer-based career placement companies like Catalyte, use AI to match personality traits to new jobs “similar to the Harry Potter Sorting Hat,” their CEO says. Opportunity@Work is also using an AI platform to test skills and certify mastery without credentials, connecting aspiring employees to guaranteed interviews and job options.

JOB AUGMENTATION: COLLABORATION BETWEEN AI AND HUMANS


Automation is already permitting us to do many things we simply could not do otherwise. Technology is a force multiplier. Maybe in this sense AI doesn’t represent “Artificial Intelligence”, but “Augmented Intelligence”.


As AI systems produce increasingly more sophisticated algorithms, they will need humans to help interpret their conclusions. AIs have been shown vulnerable to bias, so human judgment will be required to ensure they are fair and transparent. This will lead to new types of jobs like data ethicists, social physicists, and AI explainers—to help monitor and interpret algorithmic outputs.

It is because of this, that the World Economic Forum predicts up to 133 million new roles emerging as companies embrace automation and uncover new opportunities for humans to work alongside machines. It’s all about symbiosis.


Since AI can help with early detection of factory anomaly detection, fraud detection, and abstract pattern recognition, existing jobs are becoming easier and safer. Hyundai is experimenting with exoskeletons that amplify the physical strength of a human, while maintaining the judgment and dexterity required to perform their job. Mercedes also piloted cobot (collaborative robot) applications programmed via tablets, allowing for seamless task transition and workflow agility. And GE has employed an application that uses machine-learning algorithms to predict when a machine might fail, arming their users with preventative insights that save both time and money.

The data processing capability of AI far surpasses any human; in seconds an AI can scan the latest research reports that would take a human another lifetime to digest. Electronic noses can identify malignancies through a mere exhaled breath that a human could never detect. AR service 3D4Medical annotates virtual anatomy in mid-air, allowing surgeons to perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, vastly improving precision and reducing risk. If Watson took the radiology boards to be certified to provide diagnostics, imagine how much more time your doctor could spend in patient care rather than reading scans. There could even be a point in the near future where providing a diagnosis without the support of AI would be considered malpractice.


And while automation obviously arms existing professionals with improved insights, it also lowers the bar for generalists to create really compelling output. Mid-level employees can become superheroes when amplified with machine devices. This opens up the most elite jobs to a broader category of employee.

THE 2030’s


Despite being a somewhat belabored platitude recently, the phrase “unprecedented times calls for unprecedented measures”, couldn’t be truer. There will not be a vanquishing by robots as many have feared, but there will definitely be a new paradigm of work.


Through this Covid spring, we’re seeing a sneak peak of how essential humans are to technologies, and how a future of collaboration leads to a win-win outcome.


As President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote: “technology is creating both new opportunities and new obligations for us—opportunity for great productivity and progress—obligation to be sure no working man…pay an unjust price for progress”. He might have been 60 years early, but he’s right on the money now!