Magazine excerpt: The fourth industrial revolution

Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Rohit Talwar ask: What might the future of work mean for HR and L&D?

Will any of today’s jobs still exist in 20 years? Will automation rewrite all our futures? The so-called fourth industrial revolution has profound implications for the world of work – and therefore the role of learning and development.

We’re already used to robots undertaking repetitive manufacturing tasks, and smart applications determining our credit ratings, autopiloting planes and delivering functionality to our mobile devices. The next waves of development will see the combination of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, and cloud services.

The combined effect of these technologies creates the opportunity for machines to interact with humans by providing services rather than simply delivering data, analysis and decision support. Imagine a future with humans, augmented humans, robots, holograms, display-based AI manifestations all working in the same space. This future is highly likely to see a revolutionary change in jobs – the birth of new
jobs and the demise of others.

How do you manage and monitor such a workforce? As an L&D professional, how will you help the human workforce keep up and adapt? What is the future of work in an era of exponential technology development?

Increasingly, devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support and take on more of our tasks. 

AI is arguably the big game changer. We already see narrow AI in use in internet searches, customer-targeting applications, and in predictive analytics. But AI has much greater capability that will merge into every aspect of our lives. Increasingly, devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support and take on more of our tasks.

We are automating a lot more activity in every sector and this will continue and accelerate. The goal for some – regarded as unappealing and potentially dangerous by others – is for AI to replicate human intelligence. That does create questions of the balance in society between human and machine.

What are the ethical and control questions that need to be answered to ensure we harness the potential of AI in service of society and not just the technology corporations? Where will future economic growth come from? In The Future of Business, 30 different trillion-dollar industry sectors of the future were identified, which were grouped into clusters.

It is expected that these clusters and the underlying sectors will be impacted radically by exponential
technology developments. They are:

  • Information and communications.
  • Production and construction systems.
  • Citizen services and domestic infrastructure.
  • New societal infrastructure and services.
  • Accounting, legal and financial services.
  • Energy and environment.

The McKinsey Global Institute looked at which technologies will drive the economy of the future. They found that mobile Internet, the automation of work knowledge, the Internet of Things (where many factory, office and household devices and appliances are connected to the Internet), and cloud computing would all form part of a transformative information technology backdrop and be the most significant creators of new economic value.

They also singled out advanced robotics and autonomous vehicles as playing a significant part in future economic growth.  Future skills and management challenges There have been a number of research projects exploring what this scale of technological change will mean for the future of work.

Pew Research (2014) asked: “Will networked, automated, AI and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?” Their key findings were:

  • 48% of respondents said that robots and digital agents will displace significant numbers of blue-collar and white-collar workers.
  • Society would see increases in income inequality, significant numbers of unemployable people, and breakdowns in the social order.
  • Conversely, 52% said technology will not displace more jobs than it creates. Lost jobs would be offset by human ingenuity creating new occupations and industries.

This group also pointed out that current social structures (e.g. education) are not adequately preparing people for the skills needed in the future job market. A 2013 study on the Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne explored the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and asked “Which jobs are most vulnerable?”

They found that 47% of workers in the US had jobs at high risk of automation. The most at-risk groups were transport and logistics (taxi and delivery drivers), sales and services (cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers, accountants), and office support (receptionists, security guards).

The equivalent at-risk workers were 35% of the workforce in the UK and 49% in Japan. A McKinsey Global Institute5 report (2016) looked at the automation of the global economy. The findings were based on a study that explored 54 countries representing 95% of global GDP, and more than 2,000 work activities.

The report said that the proportion of jobs that can be fully automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology is less than 5%, although for middle-skill categories this could rise to 20%. Based on current
technologies, 60% of all jobs have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable.

The research found that, ultimately, automation technologies could affect 49% of the world economy; 1.1 billion employees and $12.7trillion in wages. China, India, Japan and the US account for more than half these totals. The report concluded it would be more than two decades before automation reaches 50% of all today’s work activities.

The full version of this article appears in the July issue of TJ Magazine. You can subscribe here.


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