When we think about work we usually think about people – their mental or physical effort – either alone, with other people or with technology. However, the characteristics of both technology and people are changing and so will the future of work.
Technology has always been an important factor in work – from the earliest of times people have developed and used tools to compliment, enhance and amplify what they can do. Where work and the actions of a tool are repetitive and predictable then it becomes possible to automate the tool to create a machine.
Tools compliment people in work whereas machines replace them in work and change the nature of work at the same time. While people use a tool to do work, with a machine its different – the machine does the work and people’s work becomes the machine – operating and attending to the machine.
Machines have only been able to go so far economically (compared with the cost of people to do the same task) and to where and how they can be applied. However, all this is changing – changing economics and technology suggest that we are entering a new machine age and this has radical consequences for the future of people in work.
Technology developments are starting to radically reduce the cost of robots and machines while at the same time the cost of people continues to increase – making machines more economical than ever before. Computer developments, machine learning and AI are radically changing how and where machines are applied. The predictability required by machines once meant that they were applied only in controlled environments (a typical factory installation for example) but now we are starting to see more machines operating in the real world – Google’s driverless car is an important precursor of this development. The same trend has already happened in IT – where once computers were large, expensive and used in special conditions (think of an office and a desktop PC) .. we now find them out in the real world with us (think smartphones and wearable tech). In the years ahead we should expect to see more and more machines and robots leaving their factories for our world.
Once something becomes digital change and impact becomes rapid (if not exponential) – we are starting to see “Moore’s law” in the digital aspect of machines – if this is the case then we should expect to see radical advances in the application of machines and robots in the 21st century. In 1997 IBMs Deep Blue became the first machine to beat a human world champion at chess – 14 years later IBM returned with Watson to become the first machine win the TV trivia game Jeopardy in 2011. Deep blue was very much a traditional machine – it did one thing .. a special purpose computer to play chess by “brute force analysis” to work out chess moves to greater depth than any human player ever could. Watson however represented something different – IBM describes it as a “smart machine” able to answer questions in natural language. Since winning Jeopardy IBM has developed Watson and what it calls cognitive technology – Watson is now 24 times faster, 90 times smaller and described as performance improved by 2,400%. IBM have made Watson available on the web as a cloud product and developer “ecosystem” to support the development of what IBM describe as “cognitive apps” – today – you can carry Watson in your pocket!
On the 7th June 2014 computer program Eugene Goostman simulated a 13 year old boy from Odessa in unrestricted conversations – a machine passed the Turing test for the first time
On December 7th 2014 IPsoft launched Amelia – described as “the first cognitive agent who understands like a human … our cognitive knowledge worker, interfaces on human terms. She is a virtual agent who understands what people ask – even what they feel – when they call for service. Amelia can be deployed straight from the cloud in a fraction of the time. She learns as she works and provides high-quality responses consistently, every day of the year, in every language your customers speak” IPsoft sees Amelia supplementing, or directly replacing, virtually all ‘non-expert, repetitive’ job functions from customer support to expert assistance and back office roles.
Management consultancy Accenture is using Amelia in its cognitive services saying “The cognitive and learning capabilities of the Amelia platform allow it to easily absorb routine processes as well as learn from natural language interactions in order to solve customer problems and respond successfully to a wide range of queries”. Accenture is helping Shell deploy Amelia in its internal training programme, answering queries from learning advisors – “she will observe how advisors interact with staff until she is ready to automate the processes herself.” Baker Hughes is testing Amelia in its financial department on its Accounts Payable helpdesk to address queries from vendors around invoices and payments.
Sean Ammirati writes that Any office job that involves drudgery is a candidate for automation. One way to think about occupations ripe for robots is to look at different professional tasks with a knowable problem and solution – even if it’s really complex to figure out that solution.
Research from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford university suggests that nearly half of all jobs in the US are likely to be automated in the coming decades. The research concludes that “While computerisation has been historically confined to routine tasks involving explicit rule-based activities algorithms for big data are now rapidly entering domains reliant upon pattern recognition and can readily substitute for labour in a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks . In addition, advanced robots are gaining enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader scope of manual tasks. For workers to win the race, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.
A recent report from Deloitte suggests that Computers and robots are set to replace more than a third of UK jobs in the next twenty years. Work in repetitive processing, office administration, clerical and support service jobs, sales and transportation are most at risk. The report says that “Although the replacement of people by machines is well understood, the scale and scope of changes yet to come may not be … Unless these changes coming in the next two decades are fully understood and anticipated by businesses, policy makers and educators, there will be a risk of avoidable unemployment and under-employment”
But wait .. there’s more. Brian Arthur writes about the Second Economy – the computer-intensive portion of the economy where machines transact with other machines without humans in a “vast, automatic, and invisible economy without workers thereby bringing the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution”
At the very extreme pessimistic end of the spectrum Stephen Hawking thinks that “Artificial Intelligence Could End Human Race”, Nick Bostrom warns that AI could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons and that “artificial intelligence may doom the human race within a century” while Elon Musk hopes “we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence” that “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon” and “worries Skynet is only five years off”
The changes in technology mentioned above suggest radical and pessimistic negative impacts for work and for people but this assumes nothing else changes. However, people are incredibly resourceful and other views are more optimistic.
Gerd Leonhard suggests that the concept of work as we know it is toast but that many new areas will open up in new or unpredictable niches, with titles we can only guess at at present and that there are all those areas where human soft skills are essential. Many lower-paid but intricate jobs (think electricians or plumbers) with too many variables may be too expensive to automate. And there will surely always be a premium for the human touch in some areas that could be automated – cooking or teaching, for example
Greg Satell gives some useful advice on How to Avoid Being Replaced By A Robot – learn To Ask Questions, Improve your social skills and go beyond the routine. “the division is no longer between manual and cognitive tasks as much as it is between routine and non-routine work.” Anything that is standardised and routine is at risk of being automated. Greg leaves us with the optimistic message that by “automating tasks, we are liberating human imagination and the human spirit. The more we unlock the secrets of technology, the more we find ourselves.”
Andrew McAfee compares the information revolution with the industrial revolution and takes a very optimistic view – “what we’re in the middle of now is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains and infinitely multiplying our mental power. How can this not be as big a deal as overcoming the limitations of our muscles?” … we ain’t seen nothing yet. The best days are really ahead”. Andrew makes the point that “Economies run on ideas. So the work of innovation, the work of coming up with new ideas, is some of the most powerful, some of the most fundamental work that we can do in an economy. In the technology-facilitated world .. the work of innovation is becoming more open, more inclusive, more transparent, and more merit-based.
As automation looks set to impact traditional notions of work and how we work technology changes and a new generation of people emerge that can make the most of the new conditions and potentially reimagine work as we know it. In 2014 Internet traffic from mobile use exceeded PC use for the first time – signalling the start of a new era of anytime, anywhere IT and the potential for anytime, anywhere work. Rather than us having to come to work – work can come to us. Mobile IT combined with social media, cloud and web access are powerful tools in the right hands. New cultural movements like the Maker Movement combined with new technologies like 3D printing, Internet of Things and cheaper more accessible “maker” electronics like Raspberry PI, Adruino and Intel’s Edison suggest potential future artisan economies of scope, creativity and imagination while machines replace more routine and standardised work.
The generation who have “grown up digital” in the 21st century have grown up with the tools we shaped for them – the Net, the Web, mobile phones, smartphones, social networks and social media. Generation Z have grown up with information and communication at their fingertips. Those born in the 21st century will be able to “race with the machines” – and as Greg Satell says “our value will be determined not by how much we know or even how hard we work, but how well we collaborate with machines and with each other”. Research by Sparks & Honey’describes Generation Z as developing their personalities and life skills in a socio-economic environment marked by chaos, uncertainty, volatility and complexity. They have learned that traditional choices don’t guarantee success. They “Intend to change the world. That entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is one of their most popular career choices – 72% want to start a business and 61% want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee.
While it seems that a new generation are ready to “race with the machines” John Hagel suggests that our institutions and their organisation are the main problem. He says that “at its core, this isn’t a technological challenge, but an institutional challenge. We’re dealing with a set of institutions that are increasingly inappropriate for the mounting pressure we face. The root cause is how we’ve defined work in companies … one of the issues is this formula for how work is conducted was developed in the last century, and it was based on a set of infrastructures and assumption of a stable environment that made it easy to define standardized highly-scripted work. Now we’re in a world that’s more rapidly changing, more uncertainty, more of those extreme events that Taleb calls the “black swans” that make it really critical for us as individuals in the workplace to take much more initiative, to be constantly exercising creativity and imagination to respond to the unexpected events. That’s a very different model of work. It requires a very different way of organizing our institutions and a different set of work practices that are much harder to automate. Rather than pursuing scalable efficiency, perhaps we need a new set of institutions that can drive scalable learning, helping participants to learn faster by working together.
“We have stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”— E.O. Wilson
Hagel says that “Until we can develop an alternative institutional model, one that can scale as effectively as the scalable efficiency model, we will face mounting pressure from machines and remain locked in a race against the machine without the ability to finally race with the machine. The problem is how do we innovate our institutions and our work practices so that we, in fact, can start “racing with the machine.”
Ultimately technology may provide a platform to race with machines – a new generation of developers like Vitalik Buterin working with open, autonomous, decentralised technologies suggest could Bootstrap decentralized autonomous corporations where we can work together with other agents on the network … not necessarily knowing whether they are human or not.
This blog takes a brief look at how industrial processes have shaped our culture, identity and our ideas of information.
The defining factor of the 20th century was fossil fuel (especially oil) which today provides an energy equivalent to 22 billion slaves and allowed an exponential extension of 19th century industrialism to do things faster, bigger and more. The 20th century as an industrial age was dominated by material things, materialism and industrial processes – manufacture, distribution, consumption, disposal and the identity, political and power structure consequences of this.
Fossil fuel became abundant and cheap and 20th century systems could afford to be energy intensive – the globalisation of material things became possible – the earth became a global factory. China for example could manufacture from raw materials transported from multiple countries using oil transported from multiple countries and then transport manufactured goods to multiple countries. Transportation is present at every stage – the energy and pollution costs are now apparent.
Politics and economics became focused on production and people’s identities became focused on consumption – we have become defined by what we have – the things we buy rather than the things we do or make. The consequences of political and economic power can be read from this.
Information is intangible and must be represented in some way and given that the Internet didn’t exist through most of the 20th century then information was by necessity locked up in material forms of representation and the necessary 20th century industrial systems associated with material things – energy intensive manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal along with the political and power structure issues that result.
The 21st century Internet provides a new perspective on 20th century information – the energy intensive manufacturing and transportation costs involved and the advantages pertaining to those who own the means of production and distribution. Consider what is required to produce a magazine – from the felling and processing of trees to make paper to the printing and distribution and the eventual disposal and waste.
Information was constrained and limited by its physical embodiment in objects – it was expensive, scarce, difficult to change and to share. You may need to travel to a bookshop or library to get a book – there would only be a limited number of books, you couldn’t easily make and distribute your own book or comments on a book. The same issues apply to other forms of information such as audio and visual information – consider the industrial processes involved in the music business to manufacture and distribute CDs.
Embodying information in physical objects slows it down and freezes it – in the same way that paper is a dead tree you could regard a book as dead information – there is no interaction. It seems a bit extreme but you could regard a library like an information graveyard where you can go to read inscriptions on the tombstones – the books as tombstones – dead information.
Computers and software as information technology have themselves also been part of the 20th century industrial production-consumption dynamic. Mainframes were born in the middle of the 20th century and naturally created a centralised information and control model. Punk music and the personal computing trend both started in the late1970s as an attempt at personal production – both were eventually assimilated by the very mainstream industry processes they were a rebellious response to. Personal computing is dominated by major industry businesses. Software “production” is still dominated by manufacture, distribution and installation – it is partially “dead” software. Computers and anything digital are subject to rapid produce and consume cycles – we need ever faster machines to run ever bigger software. The irony is that the machines of the information age had become the epitome of the industrial age.
William Gibson’s quote “The Future is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed” is a powerful and practical idea for working out what is going to happen in the short term – extrapolate from current edge and current trends. Using my crystal ball to throw the light of the recent past into the near future I see network effects creating exponential growth in certain areas and it is on these areas I have focused on below.
Cloud Applications Get Very, Very Good
Google Apps became serious in 2008 and improved as the year passed – they demonstrate the potential of on-line applications with new abilities that come naturally from being on-line (collaboration, web integration and data lookup), platform neutrality (work on Mac, Linux, Microsoft) and are free!
In 2009 Microsoft will be releasing some form of on-line application – the probable result will be to validate the model and expand the market. Microsoft’s activities will be influential and important to bring the cloud to the awareness of mainstream users. The next version of Office is expected to have “cloud additions” like Office Live – which allows you to store and share files in the cloud but you still need local Microsoft application software to use them –Software plus Service (Microsoft software plus Internet service). This approach is useful -Microsoft will be able to sell software (and this would be a compelling upgrade) and the “normal” Office user will get cloud access within the comfort zone of their familiar Office environment – the common Microsoft extend and embrace strategy. More interesting will be the browser based Microsoft office that is due out in 2009 although Microsoft say it will offer “light editing” of office files many expect it to be a very slick operator.
We need competition in the cloud but the scale and resources required needs major investment and infrastructure – competition in this area really needs to be among the really big companies (apologies to Zoho who have a very extensive and nice cloud suite). The competition between Google and Microsoft will be good for cloud applications and the expectation is that Google have major improvements planned as a response to Microsoft’s moves.
Although Google apps are already very good my expectation is that by the end of 2009 cloud applications will be very, very good.
Lifestreaming Becomes Mainstream
During 2008 Twitter achieved its billionth message (tweet) went exponential and was adopted almost everywhere e.g. in Government, Politics, business. Like many major developments Twitter is relatively simple and this is what has driven its growth – it is easy to start, easy to use, easy to use in different ways and is highly extendable, for example the Twitter API carries 10 times the traffic of the visible Twitter site – this is used by 3rd party twitter user interfaces but also for systems interfaces – e.g. to feed into Facebook. A suggestion of what of what to expect is the way web sites and blogs are now embedding twitter streams and for a change Twitter themselves even produced Twitter badges to assist with this. Increasing participation is speeding up the Internet and simple lifestreaming systems like twitter give people a foot in the door and an important presence in a “Global Village” of 1.5 Billion that is growing at 20% per year. Whenever I come across someone I expect them to have Net presence – I expect them to have a Lifestreaming and a Blog. Network effects are important and as more people use Lifestreaming and Twitter in particular the more important it will become and the bigger it will become.
Devices Get And Use Senses
The Graphical User Interface (GUI) enriched and enhanced computing – it liberated us from the command line with a more natural mode of working and allowed “normal” people to work with computers. However, the very success of the GUI has blinkered our vision of other approaches. As computers permeate our everyday lives and environments they need to be more responsive to our daily lives and environments. The Wii and the iPhone – both are less powerful in hardware terms than similar products but both have been wildly successful due to the new way they interact with the user and the environment and both have brought in a new set of users. The Google Mobile App for iPhone is already pretty amazing but even more suggests what will be possible. Consider the impressive list of interfaces already present on the iPhone – location (GPS), visual (screen, camera), audio (speaker, microphone), touch, tilt, proximity, vibration – we should expect further exploitation of these. Other manufacturers will be seeking to catch up and improve upon the iPhone – I think we will see some very impressive sensory applications for mobile devices in 2009 – I’m looking forward to be able to talk to and listen to the net e.g. “Phone – is there a traffic problem around here” and have it search traffic reports in my location and respond “yes – burst water main 1 mile ahead” for example. Microsoft tag and Amazon’s iPhone application suggest some ways in which we can use sensors in our smartphones.
The Web Gets More Programmable
With the web getting more participative information is generated at a higher speed and in greater quantities – tools to manage and cope are essential and those tools need to get smarter – this could be more a wish than a prediction but there are signs that smarter tools (agents) will become available to us. The “ecology” developing around Twitter gives some good examples. Twitter provides only a simple web interface but the Twitter API is heavily exploited by third parties to provide a huge range of applications based around Twitter. These applications indicate what can be done for users – Twitchboard which listens to your twitter account, and forwards messages on to other internet services based on what it hears or Shozu which provides a system to integrate many of your services from your mobile. The more adventurous user may like to try Microsoft’s simple MASH creator Popfly while more advanced users may which to try Yahoo Pipes, the Yahoo Application Platform, Google App engine or Microsoft’s Azure to create their own applications like this Twitter search using Google App engine or this Twitter search using Microsoft Azure. By the end of 2009 I am expecting to see more people using RSS, Integration services and even programming services.
Netbooks Go Massive
Small used to mean expensive but now small means affordable – the combination of economic problems and the need for mobility means that netbooks will be overwhelmingly popular – everyone I meet just loves them. The Asus Eee was like the punks who set a new fashion trend which was appropriated by the major fashion houses so that it became mainstream, now every manufacturer offers netbooks and there is now more of a continuum of models from the smallest to the largest so that the concept of netbook starts t lose meaning – is a 12in netbook really a netbook?
The Cloud Goes Massive
In the same way that mobile phones are given away as part of a network contract we see computers being given away as part of Internet contracts for what use is a computer without a network these days? With the Economic problems people will be choosing between computing (local compute power and applications) and networking – cloud computing is there at the right time to offer a solution with free (or relatively cheap) cloud services with free (or relatively cheap) local computing. Network effects will expend the cloud – as more people use it the more useful it becomes and the more people use it. Microsoft’s development of their Cloud services (Live), Office and Windows 7 will all “legitimise” the cloud for mainstream users and expand the market further.