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The Future of Work: Robots, AI and Automation

May 1, 2018 by

An Interview with Darrell West: The Future of Work: Robots, AI and Automation

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Darrell your latest book is about the future of work. What do you see on the horizon?

Technology innovation is accelerating at the very time there are fundamental shifts in business models. We are seeing advances in robots, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars that threaten the workforce and employers are moving to temporary or short-term workers who do not receive benefits. Each of those developments have tremendous consequences for the workforce. If society does not need all the people currently in the workforce, it raises questions how individuals will get income and benefits and what society will be like in the future.

2) Robots typically are asked to do the things that are dangerous, deadly and drudgery. Will this continue or change in the future?

Robots are moving up the value chain. In the past, they focused on mechanical tasks generally performed by blue collar workers. But now their sophistication has advanced to the point where they are taking over tasks typically performed by white collar workers. Half of the stock market trades now are automated and increasing financial companies are using robots and AI to provide nuanced and up-to-the-minute financial advice to clients. That means the workforce ramifications will go way beyond entry level positions to jobs of the professional class.

3) Just about every day I read something online about an increase in children with autism, intellectual deficiency -what kinds of jobs will be available for this group in say 20 years?

There has been an increase in special needs children in the last couple of decades and it probably will be difficult for them to find jobs in the future. Automated processes are taking over tasks that these individuals perform so there likely will be fewer entry level jobs. That situation raises important questions for society in terms of what happens to these individuals and how we provide financial support and social inclusion for them.

4) You talk about life-long learning- and while I certainly agree with you- the issue is selling this construct to the millennials. Who will do it? How will this be done?

We need to move away from the model where most of education focuses of people up through age 25 to include more opportunities for lifetime learning. In a rapidly changing economy, it will be crucial for adults to update their work skills on a regular basis. Jobs will be created that don’t even exist right now. People will have to periodically update their skills in order to keep abreast of employer needs. Colleges will need to provide opportunities for continuing education and there will have to be some means of providing financial assistance to those who cannot afford to pay for these courses.

5) Rousseau’s’ social contract- what will need to be re-negotiated or modified?

We will need to re-negotiate the social contract for a world where there is significant unemployment or under-employment. Robots, AI, and automation will take jobs in the restaurant business, retail industry, and transportation sector. Right now, about 12 percent of prime-age men are outside the workforce and it is possible that number could double or triple by 2050. How will those outside the workforce get income and benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits? We need to expand the earned income tax credit to help those left behind and figure out ways to improve the portability of social benefits for those moving from job to job and employer to employer.

6) Tell our readers- educate us about the Internet of Things- this construct is being thrown around- but no one seems to have a handle on exactly what it is.

The Internet of Things refers to all the ways in which we will move towards a connected society. We will live in smart homes with smart appliances, smart energy grids, and mobile-activated security systems. There will be billions of sensors that track energy usage, lighting needs, and day-to-day needs. There will be remote monitoring devices that track healthcare and enable patients to keep in close touch with healthcare providers. All these devices will provide exceptional convenience to people but also will raise issues of personal privacy and cybersecurity.

7) In a capitalist society- where profit is everything- and full time jobs provide so many benefits- will everyone be working less in the future?

One reasonable response would be for people to work fewer hours in the future so more people can have jobs. That would be one way to preserve the current model of income and benefits being provided through employment. Another way to do it is to recognize some people will be outside the workforce and there needs to be government programs such as the earned income tax credit or a basic income that takes care of minimum needs and encourage people to fill their time with hobbies, mentoring, or community service projects. That would be a more radical reformulation of the workforce, but one that is in keeping with a society that may need fewer workers.

8) I seem to be working harder than ever! Am I as a teacher more important than a restaurant worker?

We need people with lots of different skills: teachers, plumbers, restaurant workers, and data scientists. As technology innovation accelerates and affects many of these jobs, we have to help people make the transition to a digital economy where jobs are different and new skills are needed. That means lifetime education and worker retraining programs. The old model of getting educated through age 25 and then having a fulltime job may disappear for many people and require different models of education and employment.

9) The country seems to be very divided- for many reasons- How will this impact the coming onslaught of AI and robots?

By 2050, the United Sates could be in a situation of utopia or dystopia. The crucial variable in these alternative futures is public policy. One hundred years ago, America faced a difficult transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, but our leaders made a series of economic and political reforms that helped workers handle the transition. Social Security and unemployment insurance were developed, the income tax was adopted through a constitutional amendment, women got the right to vote, and primaries were developed to break the logjam of party politicians. With our current polarized and hyper-partisan political environment, it will be difficult for the United States to enact fundamental economic and political changes required to handle the transition to a digital economy. But if we don’t make changes, it increases the odds of dystopia rather than utopia.

10) Last question- will we still need carpenters, plumbers, electricians, dentists and doctors- just to name a few?

We will need all these workers in the future, but their jobs may be quite different. Doctors will have digital assistants that provide the latest information on medical diagnosis and treatment. AI systems may read CT-scans and help providers identify abnormalities in radiological tests. Technology will augment human performance and help all of us do a better job.

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