This time, last year I felt very lonely. In writing Silicon Collar, I was one of the few voices who is not pessimistic about automation killing masses of jobs. I kept getting asked, how can you ignore the rapid pace of technological evolution? I kept telling people adoption of technology has not evolved as rapidly. Society has its “circuit breakers” to too-rapid automation. Read about the century of automation I have cataloged in the book and how tens of millions of jobs have changed, but survived, in most sectors. Yeah, but this time it is different, I would hear back.
Last week, I finally felt some vindication. I was at a Cognizant event which celebrated work and workers. Even the background music was mostly about the joys of work. As a slide referenced, it was as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin often called it “a song of hope”. There was nobody clamoring for a dole or Universal Basic Income. It was about how automation is transforming work or creating new type of work. And yes, it was good to hear themes common with those in my book. Automation targets 3D tasks – dull, dirty and dangerous ones. Work has been central to mankind for millennia. Our last names handed down for generations convey that fact. The handouts had emphatic statements like “But a world without work is a fantasy that is no closer to reality in 2017 than it was 501 years ago upon the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia.”
Oh, there was a lone dissenter – Prof Vivek Wadhwa who kept saying (without much data to back him up) that jobs are lost. His pessimism only made the pragmatism of the others stand out even more. And even he was optimistic about future of healthcare and renewable energy.
The Cognizant speakers like Ben Pring – most ex Gartner and Forrester analysts and now part of its Center for the Future of Work – unveiled 21 new jobs they believe technology will help create. The graph below summarizes them. 10 of the jobs are in B2C settings, the rest in B2B settings.
Some of the job titles are awkward sounding but each is believable. Who would not like to see a member of their family benefit from a “augmented reality journey builder” before dementia or Alzheimer’s potentially afflicts them? Who does not think we will need analysts who can help run our increasingly smarter cities? How can you argue with any of the jobs (which they say they identified from hundreds of candidates) all of which carry some element of coaching, connecting or caring? This 60 page white paper describes each of of the 21 jobs in some detail.
Another session had Danish serial entrepreneur, Dennis Mortensen, founder of x.ai, which has developed two AI driven personal assistants, Amy and Andrew which schedule your calendar. His humility was breathtaking. His highly focused bots have taken him years to build and mature. He did not expect AI to dramatically reshape the world of more complex work anytime soon.
A guest speaker was J.P. Gownder of Forrester. He had a nice framework for how work is evolving – machine-first, machine-human teaming and humans-first. Even in machine-first scenarios like at the Goldman Sachs cash equities desk, the number of traders has dropped from 600 in 2,000 down to 2. But now 200 software engineers support the automated trading. In contrast, in a human-first scenario, Autodesk is hiring novelists to write scripts for its chatbots. He had plenty of other examples of man leading or following machines or teaming with them. But each still has a human element.
To me, one of the best slides from the day was about this bell curve. While the day focused on the right of the curve and new jobs, I am much more heartened by the bulk in the middle that are being transformed by technology. I have written about roofers who are using drones and tools like EagleView. I have written about digital calipers, ring scanners and AR goggles on the shop floor. Gownder had examples like Robin Technologies which is bringing Roomba like robots to lawn care. Yes, as they improve in horsepower and battery life, they will take away the drudgery of cutting grass in the summer heat, but they will also allow the care taker to focus much more on landscaping. That’s what automation has always done – allowed humans to work smarter, safer and speedier.
I expect Cognizant to keep evolving its research on the topic. Try and catch a similar session like the one I attended in a city near you. It will inspire you or at least make you feel less morbid about automation. And the music will certainly cheer you up.
(Cross-posted @ Deal Architect)