The Future of Work – Part 2: Future Skills, AI and Robotics
Before exploring the skills we’ll need in the next 10-20 years, it’s helpful to look at a few jobs that didn’t even exist just a decade ago in 2006.
We didn’t have ‘Social Media Managers’ as the major platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – either didn’t exist or hadn’t broken free of a few college campuses.
We didn’t have ‘Cloud Computing Specialists’. Indeed, the term ‘Cloud Computing’ is thought to be taken from a 2006 conference featuring Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
And we didn’t have YouTube content creators. While the platform existed in 2003, it was only 2008 that YouTube’s ‘partner program’ went mainstream and allowed users to make money from advertising.
Technology is changing the workplace fast. According to a ‘Future of Jobs report’ by the World Economic Forum, we’ll see an interesting shift in desirable skills even by 2020:
Around a third of those skills don’t feature in 2015; and the jump in creativity from 10th to 3rd place in 2020 is notable. In a broad sense, this is in line with the trend of ‘what can be automated, will be automated’. Later in this article, we’ll explore some of the areas where Artificial Intelligence is making inroads on white collar jobs. Overall, we see a rise in those skills which can’t easily (and can maybe never) be automated. Emotional Intelligence, Creativity and Critical Thinking are all skills that require processes which machines find challenging.
Will our human work become increasingly virtualised? The same report also highlights those job areas on the rise and those on decrease over the next five years:
Finding value just round the corner
In addition to automation, we’re also seeing the emergence of a new ‘megatrend’: Mechanic to Organic. Where once resources were drilled, mined etc, we’ll see resources grown and cultured – think fuels and meat! As Laurent Haug points out in his ‘How do you get a job that doesn’t exist yet’ article on the World Economic Forum website:
“The food industry is abuzz with enterprises that extol the virtues of local, seasonal, farm-to-table products and services – among them pop-up restaurants, street-food trucks, microbreweries, urban farms and cooperative shops”.
All of this points towards a more sustainable, localised way of living. Large corporations aren’t going away, but as collaboration technologies such as Virtual Reality continue to improve, people can still reap the benefits of co-working with one another while reducing the need for commuting and non-essential business travel even further. Indeed, the pop-up restaurants and microbreweries also suggest that in an information-driven and homogenous corporate world, many people find value and meaning in alternative, local products.
Laurent goes on to point out:
Then there’s empathy, creativity, leadership, intuition and social intelligence. If I were to give younger people an idea of the skills they’ll need, these would be on the list, as well as advice to pay attention to how machines function and think.
He’s right. We won’t need accountants or lawyers. We will need people with human skills who can augment those machines doing the heavy lifting though!
AI – Rise of the Machines!
There’s a huge debate going on around what the implications are of massively increased automation. I’m pretty convinced we’ll see automation of white collar jobs in the same way blue collar jobs were subsumed during the industrial revolution. Where I’m less convinced however, is that machines can take on truly human qualities. Take empathy for example. There’s just not enough reference information on which to build machine learning. Sure – I’ll put out my status updates and photos on Facebook. But the underlying emotions are slightly more difficult to convey. Indeed, words are too clumsy anyway. Even if a direct neural connection could be made to a machine, would they be capable of true human understanding?
Anyhow – I digress.
What are the machines taking over right now?
Journalism and Copywriting
Platforms like Wordsmith and Narrative Science are already revolutionising journalism. Both are capable of diving into structured data sets such as sports scores or financial information, then pick over the useful parts and output a fully coherent report through NLG (Natural Language Generation). Where things will get far more interesting however is when systems like these are capable of sifting through all our ‘dark’ or unstructured data. They could sift through corporate emails, Word and PowerPoint files and Voicemails to provide a CEO with a broader unfiltered perspective than he/she would ever get through individual managers.
Back in May 2016, we saw the first hire of an AI lawyer in the form of ROSS. The system is built on the back of IBM Watson. ‘ROSS’ has joined the bankruptcy practice of Baker and Hostetler and will be working alongside 50 other lawyers. Where systems like ROSS can excel is searching for precedents and answering questions.
Get ready for platforms like FlatPi to be the ultimate recruiter. It sifts and ranks candidates in seconds rather than days or weeks. No doubt existing HR professionals will argue a case for intuition, but we should expect AI to be taking a greater role in future search and selection.
Look out for Persado. It not only generates copy and personalised messaging for clients, it also automates the online component of your marketing mix too. Oh – and it’s been taught all about techniques to persuade, so it’s certainly not dumb either!
You’d think that therapy would be the last of the jobs to be automated. Get ready to be wrong. Ellie reads body language through her Kinect sensor and is trained to respond like a human – smiling, nodding etc. via her screen. I ought to point out Ellie does not make recommendations. Right now – her strengths lie in augmenting human therapists, giving them more real time insight than they otherwise would. That said – you might find Ellie in an app store sometime soon 😉
Democratising AI for widespread adoption
April 2016 saw the announcement by Mark Zuckerberg that the Messenger application would now support Chatbots; in other words a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet. Again – Natural Language Generation rearing its head.
Zuckerberg’s vision is that businesses can build bots that facilitate bookings, sales and all manner of automated communication with customers. The advantage of these platforms to consumers is that your address, payment and preference details are all stored centrally anyway (think Amazon for example). The difference is that you can interact with chatbot entities in entirely human terms as opposed to the often clunky text based forms commonly found in many eCommerce sites. You can interact with Dutch Airline KTM via the Facebook platform right now; they currently currently man the account with humans, but are investigating the ‘technical possibilities AI might offer’.
Take a look at five of the ‘most inspiring’ bots on Messenger right now.
What’s really interesting for business is that they can meet their customers where they already are. That could be Messenger, Whatsapp, Viber, Kik or any of the major messaging applications.
And for business, these bots will make this form of interaction entirely affordable. Even small businesses will be able to select a bot with lots of core functionalities then adapt the functions to suit their requirements. A lot cheaper and a lot more helpful than building your own HAL!
Get your Big Mac served by Chatbot
Messaging app Kik – popular with the kids (I’m showing my age…) has been working with McDonalds to aid their interaction with customers. So far, it’s been about the latest promotion or prices on individual menu items. Kik are currently in talks with McDonalds to allow customers to scan a Kik Code on a wall which then triggers the ordering of the customer’s food. It’ll no doubt only be a short while until that food is prepared and served by robots.
Need a Personal Assistant?
Look no further than New York based startup X.AI. Their personal assistant bot ‘Amy’ will create calendar appointments for you if you cc her into your emails to people. She looks at your calendar then suggests times and dates for a meeting. If someone cancels, she’ll even try to reschedule.
These technologies are still in their infancy now, but they will make continue to improve and progress. A whole other debate exists about how we allow them to develop – one we’ll cover in subsequent thinking.
Introducing Robots into the mix
For me, a utopian mid-term future is one where AI powered robots augment humans. Robots have already demonstrated their usefulness in repeatable tasks. Just visit any mass car manufacturer to see that. In the previous post about supply chains, we saw how robots like Baxter are being trained to act as pick/pack robots. There’s a lot of debate about what happens as AI and Robotics get smarter and what it means for humanity. I’d argue humans will get smarter too as we gain a greater understanding of genetics and redress the man/machine balance. Again – something we’ll cover subsequently.
Whilst Robots have acted behind the scenes for years, we’re finally starting to see them in our everyday lives. Back in 2015, we saw the opening of EATSA – the worlds (supposedly) first restaurant to serve food using Robots. The idea being customers order their food on wall mounted iPads, with customer food appearing in minutes via little ‘cubbies’.
It’s actually a bit of a trick right now. Apparently the ‘cubbies’ turn black for a moment and if you look carefully, you’ll see a hand place the food in the cubbie. Oh – and there’s a human employee in the front greeting people and answering questions. Plus, the food is prepared by humans.
So – while EATSA is a bit of a farce, it does offer us insight into a new reality where entire task categories will be done more cheaply, reliably and faster by machine.
Meet Betty – The Office Manager
Betty is pioneering the way for robots to work in your office. Don’t underestimate Betty’s crude appearance for being dumb. She greets guests and staff, tracks employee hours and overtime and manages the ordering of office materials. She can also navigate the office, so can escort guests to meeting rooms. And you’d better not ‘permanently borrow’ stationery for home or she’ll know it’s missing.
What do Robots mean for us?
Even three years ago, Oxford academics Carl Benedikt and Michael Osborne predicted that around 47% of all jobs in the US would likely become automated.
Those safest in the short to mid-term included artists, clergy and teachers. Those most at risk include accountants, cashiers, telemarketers and sports referees.
We mustn’t be complacent. Take a doctor for example. The actual diagnosis and treatment could likely be done better by machine, but what about the human skills? Empathy, understanding, the emotional side of the work? Maybe ‘Doctoring’ is perfectly suited for augmentation by robots, or at least advanced AI?
There’s little doubt robots will play a more important role in society. In some cases, they will take over existing jobs. Take the multitasker bot from Momentum Machines: it can make and flip a burger in 10 seconds flat. Not long till the McDonalds crew gets replaced!
Universal Robots have a manufacturing device that even builds new parts for itself when they need replacing. Oh, and Google has a patent to build worker robots with personalities. I only hope they don’t suffer from mental illness – I really don’t want to deal with a Subway bot that throws the sandwich ingredients at me!
If history is anything to go by, the future is positive. The economy has changed and people are generally better off. In the 19th century, 4 out of 5 people worked on the land to produce food. Now, it’s less than 2% (in the US). Food is more abundant and cheaper than ever, which means that many people can afford to spend time and money on other pursuits. We automated blue collar work. People transitioned. We’re automating white collar work. People will transition. I hope a future exists where we separate jobs from work. Those things that can be automated, should be automated. Those things which make us human, empathy, love etc. should be developed and celebrated with the new time we should have to pursue them.