Imagine for a moment heading back in time, not particularly far back in time, let’s say 2002. Your destination, if you can handle the excitement, is your local supermarket. Your task, and again – retain some composure – is to do your weekly shop.
Think about how that process would’ve gone. You’d have begun by ranting and raving because ‘there’s never any bleedin’ pens in this house’ before finally scribbling a list of groceries on the bank of a bank statement with an eyeliner pencil. Having arrived at the supermarket late because of a series of roadworks, you’d begin the arduous process of filling the trolley. Needless to say, you’re trying a new diet so every item you choose must have its packaging carefully scrutinised to ensure the contents assimilate with your macro intake. You then reach the till, where a hungover college student tosses everything through the scanner before wearily demanding payment that amounted to a lot more than you’d budgeted for. Your battered debit card is swiped, and you are presented with a chewed biro to sign your name so Mr I’m-Never-Drinking-Again can compare it with the faded smudge on the back.
Now, let’s compare that ordeal to how it can work today.
Your more organised spouse has already created a shopping list on the app, Listonic. They share it with you via the app and you head to the store. You make good time because Google Maps had already alerted you to the presence of roadworks and recalculated your route accordingly. Having arrived at the store, you pick up a ray-gun-resembling scanner and set about scanning each item you choose and placing them in the bags you brought with you. There is no danger of exceeding your budget because a running total is displayed on the ray gun’s screen. An interesting looking new loaf of bread catches your eye but before committing to a purchase, you scan it with MyFitnessPal only to learn half a slice will wreck your latest diet plan and you grudgingly return it to the shelf. With the last item scanned, you head to a screen where a till used to stand and fire the ray gun at the barcode displayed. Your shopping list is presented with the total you were prepared for, and you settle up by flashing your smartwatch at the screen.
Probably not the most enthralling example to use, but this comparison demonstrates how automation has transformed the way we perform even the most mundane of tasks, in not even 20 years. It begs the question; where is all this going to take us next?
A robotic future
It’s difficult to predict with any real accuracy what automation in 2039 will be allowing us to do, but we can make some pretty educated guesses.
It’s important we ease one particular fear that continues to gain traction which is that we’re heading for record-levels of global unemployment. The masses scavenging the streets whilst a handful of quadrillionaires preside over empires of completely robotic industrial complexes. A term penetrating discourse around future automation is that we’re heading for ‘redeployment, not unemployment’. In other words, though automation will render many current jobs obsolete, it will also create new roles, many within entirely new sectors.
As it stands, repetitive, predictable jobs such as tax completion, fast food preparation and certain tasks carried out by the likes of paralegals and clerical assistants, all look set to become computerised within the next decade or so. This does, however, leave many other professions that should be safe from the automation onslaught. For the time being anyway.
Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, identifies three types of profession automation poses little immediate threat to:
Creative– No computer is powerful enough yet to carry out job roles requiring creative, lateral and/or original thinking with any kind of reliable competence. The human brain dominates these fields comfortably. For now. Although the relentless march of AI could well see computers routinely producing creative masterpieces a little further down the line.
Relationship-based– Jobs which necessitate complex and intimate human connections such as teaching, nursing and business relationship development are here to stay for a long time. No-one wants to be led on a hospital trestle table receiving palliative care from R2-D2 regardless of his ability.
Unpredictable– Any role that involves dealing with quickly changing situations and requiring a combination of outstanding knowledge and physical dexterity is also fairly safe for the time being.
It’s not just that such jobs are less at risk, but there is an argument to be made that they could flourish. There is a real possibility that deep and pervasive automation will see a move within education and training towards a greater cultivation and nurturing of uniquely human skills. As outlined above, professions which depend on creativity, emotional intelligence, and an ability to react quickly to changing situations that necessitate competent dexterity will be much needed and demand for them could well grow rather than diminish. For employees, this shouldmean work becomes more satisfying as they are liberated from the mind-numbing drudgery the robots now handle.
As the role of people and the skills they need in the workplace modifies, changes to working hours should also modify. The rigid 9-5 could be replaced with more flexible shifts which fit around the windows of time that individuals feel most able to deploy their skillsets and leave more time to try and enjoy life.
Of course, this is an optimistic vision, but it’s plausible. It’s also a vision that will present fresh challenges to humanity about the nature of work and its role in our lives. Do we work simply to earn money? Or is it more deeply ingrained in our psyche that from work we derive validation and a sense of purpose?
It’s unlikely to be a question we’ll be faced with, but our children may very well be.