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The Future Of Work

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Envision a world where everyone is employed, everyone is happy with their work, and we coexist with artificial intelligence (AI) in our everyday life. What does that image look like? What jobs do you picture humans performing?

Such a utopian equilibrium may not be easy to visualize, but we are looking at a transition that is taking shape as I write.

Our ever-changing world with its unprecedented technological advances is creating a whirlwind of possibilities and challenges. One of the most deeply troubling questions is whether automation and AI might eventually replace every human activity imaginable. Glooming headlines shape the perception that it is a lose-lose situation for humans.

I find the subject “future of work” fascinating and timely as I have been studying this for some time now. In fact, I am headed to the OECD Forum in May as one of the Young Diplomats of Canada to discuss “Digitalisation and the Future of Work” and how we can have social and economic growth that is sustainable.

Industrialized and developed countries have witnessed a surge of automation in manufacturing jobs, which is expected to increase productivity and efficiency. In the United States alone, automation has been responsible for the loss of 5 million jobs in the manufacturing sector over the past two decades. The figure is almost ten times higher compared to jobs lost to outsourcing. According to a 2017 report by McKinsey Global Institute, by 2030, 800 million jobs will disappear universally, and one-third of the Canadian workers will lose their jobs as a result of automation.

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There are three general public concerns or fear over digitalization and automation: security, autonomy, and privacy. Traditionally, social protections have been tied to work. With digitalization and automation, non-standardized jobs are on the rise, affecting social protection systems. The human-machine coexistence and the fine line of authority have come into the spotlight after the latest 787 plane crashes. The recent crashes have taught us that at specific points, humans may want to decide their own fate.

Last but not least, privacy has always remained a concern with digitalization. Even though machines might be able to make better decisions based on the data they receive, we want individual judgments to be humane. Delegating machines’ authority have made us uneasy regarding privacy.

Technological disruption might be the most significant factor changing the employment landscape, but adaptability/skill development, workforce migration, and demand for human interaction will also dominate the horizon. In my vision, the future of work will be divided into two domains: 1) human-centered and 2) machine-centered. You can already see this division taking shape in industries. One side is looking at human relations, while the other is managing technology. Human-centered jobs will require a focus on soft skills like building partnerships and making decisions based on popular demand, not solely on efficiency and profit maximization. Then, some professions will require zero human contact, like a traffic controller or future financial experts who will use human cognitive intelligence and deep learning systems to predict the market. Then there will be those that are cross-cutting. Both types of work will be able to function in person and remotely, thanks to digitalization.

The endangered jobs in this path are the ones that require little critical thinking or no reasoning at all. The jobs to go under the knife in  developed society are concentrated mostly in the manufacturing and service industry, where human control or interaction is becoming less and less crucial, for example postmean, tellers, and store service personnel. The process might take a bit longer when it comes to developing countries, given the cultural difference, low cost of human labor, and production. One would hardly come across an elevator operator in North America nowadays, which is not the case in, let’s say, Bangladesh. Still, it’s a just a matter of time; sooner or later, manual jobs will not only enter the “red book of endangered jobs,” but will be declared extinct on a global scale.

Then there are jobs which digitalization will supplement, if not replace. You can see the impact already in legal works tax filing, clinical practices, finance, and even engineering. Farmers will see higher mechanization in the field with sensors and high-end technology, reducing the need for more helping hands. The jobs that require direct human interaction and cognitive power are the last ones in this line of soon-to-be-wiped-out occupations. Psychologists, therapists, counselors, facilitators, and interdisciplinary professionals are all on this list. There are also the non-routine skilled jobs like the works of electricians, plumbers, or gardeners, which will not be easy to mechanize.

Many white-collar professionals will find themselves out of place and their crafts less in demand. Career success will require life-long learning and a constant honing of one’s skillsets. To stay a sought-after professional, one must adapt to the top-notch tools and indicators AI might be able to provide. One will need to understand their foundation and logical framework to know how to utilize them to become a competent decision-maker.

Personally, I have seen the impact of digitalization in many of my engagements. In impact assessments, for example, digitalization helps to connect with remote communities and analyze the results of this engagement in a matter of seconds. This has not solved the problem of communication, though, as community interaction calls for empathy and consideration of human motifs and sentiments. In the domain of humans, AI will be a helping hand dealing with tedious, time-consuming, and routine tasks, while human professionals will be left with the role of ultimate decision-makers who take the AI findings, combine them with their observations of more subtle, elusive, and unstable human, social, and cultural factors, and make the conclusion based on all of that. At least, the world of impact assessment will move that direction until cognizance in AI reaches the human level.

Automation and AI should not be frowned upon as modern-day villains stealing jobs from honest workers. They ease our life in many ways and – contrary to popular stereotypes – create plenty of employment opportunities. Wiping out jobs in some sectors, the technological transformation has generated new workplaces and never-before-seen possibilities in others. We will continuously see a rise in entrepreneurship and disruptive ideas. Even fifty years ago, the IT and aviation industries were non-existent, and now, they employ hundreds of millions of people. The future of work will undoubtedly depend on how the digital transition takes shape around the world. There is a cost to this transition and a price for not adopting the technology in advance. There is a growing debate about what role academic institutes will play and whether we are providing the right education and skill set to our future generations to have sustainable work.

AI will impact the work of everyday humans, no doubt. Its contribution, though – at least in the foreseeable future – will be oriented mostly toward simplification, streamlining, and efficiency, whereas ultimate decision-making will remain the human professionals’ share of the pie. Useful or even indispensable as it is, AI would not be able to oust human experts from this industry, especially when people are involved.

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About The Author

Palash Sanyal is a professional in the field of sustainable development, environment, and energy. He has worked with IFAD, TEDTalk, WaterAid Bangladesh and other non-government organizations. Palash specializes in innovative design processes, behavioral change, and transdisciplinary sustainability issues. He has more than five years of facilitation experience, facilitating controversial issues for Soliya, UNESCO, Harvard University, University of Saskatchewan, and various other organizations. Twitter: @prsanyal.