The pace of technological innovation is breathtaking. It is having an impact on virtually every aspect of our lives. And it will continue to do so – in many ways that we can’t yet imagine.
Late last year I found myself gazing down quite affectionately at a robot at the entrance to a Softbank store in Tokyo. The size of a child, it had angled its head towards me and was using its articulated hands to gesture as it chattered away. As I bent down to gaze into its eyes I was enchanted.
I’m impressed (though not as enchanted) with my recently-bought car. Generally, the buyer of vintage cars (or what my children would call ‘old’), I’ve suddenly leapt to a car capable of parking itself. I’m the owner of a mass-market vehicle that has the inbuilt intelligence to gently manoeuvre itself into a space by the kerb.
The striking point is not that there is such a thing as a retail robot or a self- parking car: such technologies are likely to become run-of-the-mill within a relatively short time. What was far more significant is that just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted that I would feel such affection for a little robot or own a vehicle quite that clever.
We must all expect the unexpected.
Nowhere is this more true than in the sphere of work. When I launched the Future of Work research consortium seven years ago, my interest was in how work would change. I got in touch with executives in more than 100 companies across the world to discover their thinking on technological innovations and the rate at which they are adopted. It is clear to me that never before has there been a greater need to be adaptable. To survive and prosper, we must be nimble and be prepared for a working world not yet imagined.
An unknown future
At the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2015, I moderated a conversation with some of the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) experts. It was a fascinating conversation that was reported in the Daily Telegraph the following day under the ‘robots destroy jobs’ theme. Two years later, it is no surprise that many people are anxious about the likely impact that AI and robotics will have on their jobs: indeed, will their jobs be automated out of existence? The repercussions have already been felt by many people in medium-skilled jobs. When was the last time you went into a bank to cash a cheque, watching while the teller counted out notes? How soon will it be before you, like me, will be enchanted by a diminutive robot in your local bank?
When my co-author Professor Andrew Scott and I wrote The 100-year Life, it became clear to us that whilst increasing longevity meant significantly longer working lives, the real challenge is that longer working lives are coming at a time of significant technological innovation and change. The result is that we are trying to make investments and plans about a future working life that frankly we know little about. Look at the questions we face when we believe we face an unknowable future: what skills should I invest in developing and what jobs should I prepare for?
But is the future really so unknowable? Perhaps the long-term – more than 10 years - is impossible to imagine, but there are signals that can help us think about the short and medium term.
Learning to live with robots
One signal to look at is where the investment money is going. Driverless cars are an obvious and high-profile example: significant amounts of resources and effort are currently being put into the development of autonomous vehicles that are reliable, efficient and safe. If all that research pays off, then we can imagine the effect on jobs. Clearly the impact on lorry drivers will be profound: a large cohort of relatively low-skilled, mainly male employees will be displaced.
A second signal is how people feel about these technological innovations and how quickly companies are prepared to adopt them. Perhaps the more we interact with robots, for example, the more comfortable we will feel about having them care for us when we are older. That positive interaction I had in Tokyo with the cute Softbank robot could well be the beginning of my changing attitude to robots. This is important because our feelings about technologies will affect the rate at which those new technologies diffuse through our organisations and society. For companies, the diffusion rate will also be a function of the cost of labour: it makes more sense to invest in AI and robots if hourly wage rates are $25 than it does if they are $10.
However, even with these clues, accurately predicting scale and speed is hard. Sometimes we under-predict the rate of diffusion of certain technologies. Think about smart phones which were virtually unknown two decades ago, but which we now take for granted. We can also over-predict the speed at which other technologies will appear in our lives: I don’t believe in the short or medium term that you will see robots with arms and legs whirring down the corridor outside your office. Will C-3PO step off the screen of Star Wars and invade our lives? Not for a while.
So as we plan for the future, we are confronted by a number of imponderables about both scale and velocity. So what do we know?