Work, business & professional services

Is your job safe from robots?

A PEW report in the US says two-thirds of Americans believe in 50 years’ time, robots and computers will “probably” or “definitely” be performing most of the work currently done by humans. However, 80 per cent also think their own profession will “definitely” or “probably” be safe.

One book, The Future of the Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind, delves into this dilemma and concludes that machines will soon be able to make moral judgments. As they put it: “Future systems could articulate and balance moral arguments, identify consistencies and illogicalities, point out assumptions and presuppositions, and identify conclusions”.

Many people, especially those involved in law, medicine or even engineering perhaps, will find this idea hard to swallow. Surely jobs such as these are safe because they rely on the application of judgment, empathy and imagination?

At its heart this argument contains two vital questions. The first is how far artificially intelligent machines will progress with replacing humans and second, how much we, the makers of these machines, should allow this to happen.

Ref: Prospect (UK) January 2016, ‘Are only poets safe?’ by G. Wilkes.
Search words: Jobs, work, robots, risks
Trend tags: Robotics, automation

The ghost of GDP

In 2016, total UK employment is 1.5 million above pre-crisis (GFC) levels. However, GDP per head, which had been growing by about 2 per cent every year since 1945, is only barely above its low of 2008. In short, economic recovery is everywhere except in the GDP figures. Why might this be so?

One supply-side explanation is a slowdown in technological progress and/or an erosion in the skills or work ethic of the UK workforce. This is very much the view of Robert Gordon, the US economist, who believes the latest ICT revolution is simply less productivity enhancing than the first - steam and railroads - or the second - electricity, automobiles and aircraft.

As he puts it, new applications connected to a faster internet have been frivolous entertainments of modest economic significance. We’d like to agree with this on one level and, if it’s true, the implications are bleak.

But on the demand side, a different picture may emerge. First, government intervention, particularly imposed austerity, could be to blame. A better explanation is we’ve been blindsided by a statistical illusion. In slavishly following the numbers, we’ve missed the fact that traditional methods of analysis are outmoded.

GDP is tied to the physical exchange of goods and, in the new economy, this is far less important. There is significant growth, but much of it is invisible because the companies behind it use business models that deliver services that are free at the point of use. Think of free phone calls from Skype or Whatsapp.

Many important industries are also undergoing structural transformations that simply don’t show up properly in the figures. The activities of Google and Facebook, for example, generate revenue related to advertising, research and analysis. These only show up as “intermediate business services” and do not contribute directly to measures of productivity or GDP.

There are problems with how value is reported to tax authorities in local jurisdictions and the way digital networks create income polarisation and monopolistic positions. But if this is how the economy is developing, the positive economic policy implications are enormous.

Ref: Prospect (UK) January 2016, ‘More jobs by the day – but why?’, by A. Kaletsky.
Search words: Automation, economy, jobs, growth, GDP
Trend tags: Automation, virtualisation

Why do we dislike work?

A recent global survey by Gallup found almost 90 per cent of workers are either “actively disengaged” or “not engaged” with their work. This may not seem like a big deal, but think about it for a moment.

Nine out of every ten people around the world are doing something they don’t especially like, in a place, or with people, they don’t especially like. That’s half their lives doing something they’d rather not be doing.

The survey result could have a perfectly acceptable explanation. Perhaps it’s just human nature. Maybe we’re naturally lazy or easily bored. Or maybe we’re doers who like to be physically busy, and we’re not made for sitting in offices typing information into screens.

Barry Schwartz, writing in the New York Times, thinks the de-skilling of work caused by automation and to some extent, artificial intelligence, is boosting economic efficiency but workers are paying a high price for it. This is especially so when compensation becomes the only measure that seems to matter.

The quest for economic efficiency has resulted in loss of meaning and personal satisfaction from work. In short, work has become too easy. Given the chance, Schwartz argues, workers will readily accept more work for less pay if their work becomes more engaging and allows them to exercise more discretion and control over whatever it is they do. It also means giving people the opportunity to learn and grow and to work alongside people they respect and who, in turn, respect them. Above all, ensuring employers explain how an employee’s work can help make the lives of others a bit better.

Cleaning toilets, for example, can be nasty, routine and monotonous but, done well, it can make a small difference to the lives of customers.

None of this thinking is new, but the aspiration to make all work something that creates joy or pride may be. We too easily forget that money is not the essence of human motivation and that meaningless work translates directly into poor quality and performance in the individual and the institution.

Ref: International New York Times (US) 29-30 August 2015, ‘Rethinking our work’, by B. Schwartz.
Search words: Work, automation,
Trend tags: Meaning, purpose

Near death experiences

It’s often been said that people rarely appreciate things until they’re gone. Well in South Korea, this isn’t necessarily true. At the Hyowon Healing Centre in Seoul, people, even whole companies, can attend their own mock funerals.

The experience (ordeal might be a better word for it) is intended to leave people reflecting upon their lives and involves writing farewell letters to family and friends and even lying inside a wooden coffin. The coffins are then visited by an individual dressed as the grim reaper. Holy cow!!!

The near death experience idea was developed by Jeong Yong-mun, who runs the centre and who previously worked as an undertaker at a funeral company.

South Korea currently has among the highest levels of work-related stress and the highest suicide rate in the developed world. The experience is said to make space for reflection and in particular, emphasise the good things that people have in their lives.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 15 December 2015, ‘South Korean companies make staff attend their own mock funerals to curb suicide rate’, by R. Sabur.
Search words: Death, dying, stress, anxiety, work
Trend tags: Experiences

Eight top tech trends

What are some of the new forces transforming the nature of work and workspaces? Top of the list of emergent technologies is Big Data. Such is the hype around Big Data that there’s a danger it will cool off before it’s truly hot.

However, patterns in vast pools of data do have the potential to transform how companies not only sell, but create valuable new information-based services. Part of this is simply more efficiency, but there’s also the prospect of predictive analytics that result in near real-time sales, marketing and customer support.

Next is the Internet of Things, which is really an enabler of Big Data. Essentially, people will walk around continually wearing or using items that emit useful data. Expect a privacy backlash here, especially when devices are embedded inside the human body, but 24/7 monitoring of health could herald a series of revolutions.

Third is virtual reality (VR). This could go the way of Google Glass, but VR devices could also transform everything from gaming to healthcare and law-enforcement.

What else is on the list? Open Source is hardly new, but is still expanding fast. Chatbots (see Facebook) and virtual or avatar assistants are on their way, as are semi and fully autonomous vehicles. As a pessimistic endnote, however, be aware of hacking, data theft, privacy invasion and IP theft as serious negative trends.

Ref: Raconteur: The future of work, 6 December 2015.
Search words: Work
Trend tags: Big Data, Internet of Things, Virtual Reality, privacy