Will artificial intelligence mean the end of jobs?

Will any of the jobs that exist today still be around in 20 years? Fast Future’s Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Rohit Talwar explore whether automation is destined to rewrite all our futures.

We are embarking on the so-called fourth industrial revolution – heralding an era where smart technologies could transform every aspect of business, work, government and our daily lives. We are already used to seeing faceless robots undertaking repetitive manufacturing tasks and smart applications determining our credit ratings, autopiloting planes and delivering an array of functionality to our mobile devices.

But this is just the start. The next waves of development will see the combination of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data and cloud services.

The combined effect of these technologies is really what creates the opportunity for machines to interact with humans through the provision of services rather than simply delivering us data, analysis and decision support.

Artificial intelligence is arguably the big game changer and is already becoming more commonplace. Today we can see narrow AI in use in internet searches, customer targeting applications, and in predictive analytics. But AI has much greater capability.

Increasingly devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support and take on more of our tasks. We are automating a lot more activity in literally every sector and that is set to continue at an accelerating rate.

Imagine a workplace with humans, augmented humans, robots, holograms and display-based AI manifestations all working in the same space. As a human, do you trust your robot colleague? What happens when the robot is smarter than you? How will we respond when the AI application working 24/7/365 complains that we are simply not learning or working fast enough to keep up with it? As a human resources manager or business owner, how do you manage and monitor such a work force? What happens when the smart robot wants to take a vacation or brings a harassment case against its human colleague?

The goal for some – regarded as unappealing and potentially dangerous by others – is for AI to replicate human intelligence. That does create questions of the balance in society between human and machine. What are the ethical and control questions that need to be answered to ensure we harness the potential of AI in service of society and not just technology firms?

Our view is that we could well see 80 per cent or more of current jobs disappearing in the next 20 years. Some will become obsolete, others will be fully or partially automated and in many cases tasks will be redesigned to eliminate the need for human input and decision making. The big question here is whether these jobs will be replaced by the combination of entrepreneurship, increased investment in education and training, human endeavour and the rise of the six sector clusters described above? While we don’t know the answer, we don’t have to wait – there is a lot we can do today to prepare for possible disruption.

For example, at the individual level, there are new skills we need to think about acquiring now to equip us for the world of work in the future. We all like to work in a world that is calm, stable and predictable but the reality is very different.

That world is changing ever faster, so we need to become proficient at developing and working with a new set of survival skills for the 21st century which include foresight, curiosity, sense making, accelerated learning, with a tolerance of uncertainty, scenario thinking, coping with complexity and collaborative working.

Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Rohit Talwar are from Fast Future, which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and ensure a very human future.

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