Large parts of the world have been shaped by cotton. From plantations growing it, to global distribution systems centred on transporting it, and the industrial processes needed to make it into the versatile cloth that almost everyone on earth will come in contact with on a daily basis. Cotton is, today, symbolic of how interconnected and interwoven our societies are. But its early history in industrialisation also has parallels to modern society. Before the invention of machines like the spinning jenny, cotton weaving was a cottage industry, literally. Weavers worked in their own homes, producing cloth. Industrialisation changed that dramatically. Mechanisation brought cotton weaving into factories, destroying, creating and changing jobs in almost unimaginable ways.
Just a few years ago, for an episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast, journalist Scott Horsley agreed to a small competition with another writer. The aim was to see who could write a story about a company’s earnings report the fastest. Scott lost the competition. What made this competition different was Scott’s competitor. Not a fellow journalist, but a computer. In fact, though it isn’t always apparent, a growing number of simple factual articles are now being created by algorithms instead of being written by humans. Like the changes brought about in cotton weaving in 19th century England, technology today is redefining what work is.
The rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning has been well covered in the media (by human journalists) recently. Prophecies of doom from high-profile figures like Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, and discussion about the impact on jobs in the future can often make it seem as if sentient machines are about to eliminate jobs left, right and centre. There are many parallels to the concerns that have accompanied every big shift in how our societies and economies work.
While some of the rhetoric around computers stealing our livelihoods is overblown, it is true that the nature of work is changing. Work in the future won’t be the same as work today.
It’s no surprise that there is a lot of research going on in this area. The OECD, an international organisation that promotes economic co-operation, has published a number of reports that look in detail at the sorts of jobs that might be negatively affected by computerisation, and the skills that will be in demand in the future. A key theme in these reports, is that routine work is often at the highest risk of automation.
The OECD’s ‘Skills for a Digital World’ report looked at the types of digital skills that will be needed for work in the future and at current availability of those skills in the workforce. According to results from a major international study quoted in the paper, more than 40% of workers who use ICT on a daily basis lack sufficient skills. This echoes other research carried out by partners of ECDL Foundation that has found poor levels of digital skills across a number of countries.
Another OECD report, ‘Key Issues for Digital Transformation in the G20’ also looks at some of the challenges presented by technology. It identifies digital skills as being a key challenge. According to the report, “at the national level, if large proportions of the adult population have low-proficiency in information-processing skills, the introduction and adoption of productivity-improving technologies and work organisation could be hampered.”
This makes sense, but in the future, thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence, the list of ‘at risk’ occupations is likely to grow to include jobs that have some basic elements of creativity to them. Workers will increasingly have to develop higher creative, technical and social skills, that will enable them to do the sort of work the computer just cannot do.
What will a job look like in the future? Well, take for example, a supermarket worker. Today, supermarkets are staffed with lots of people, doing a range of different types of work. From stacking shelves, to making sure that price tags are accurate, to working on the sandwich counter or on the checkouts. Running a supermarket is a complicated job that, right now, is best done by humans.
But a new experimental supermarket in Seattle could change this forever. The Amazon Go shop, which is currently being trialled, doesn’t have any checkouts. You walk in, scan your phone on a turnstile, pick your products off the shelf, and then you just walk out the store. Your purchases are automatically billed to your account, and you don’t need to interact with anyone, at any stage during the process. There are still people working there, but the jobs that they are doing will be very different to the sort of jobs done in supermarkets today. Perhaps, after you’ve done your shopping in an automatic supermarket, you might call an autonomous taxi to pick you up and take you home, or maybe hop on a driverless bus. People will still have a role in running these services, but that role may be as different as the new factory jobs in cloth manufacturing were to cottage weavers in the 18th century.
How can workers today, prepare for the work of the future? And how can the workers of tomorrow, our students today, make sure that they leave formal education with the skills they need?
Some jobs are bound to disappear, as has happened with each revolution in technology in the past. New jobs will be created, and existing ones will change. The research supported by the OECD, has shown that there are the number of different types of work that will stick around. Work that involves creativity, like writing or creating art, cannot, and probably can never, be done by computers. Work demanding social intelligence, like interacting with customers or with people who are in difficult or complicated situations, is best done face-to-face and not face to screen.
Technology is a part of all types of work, even if the principal work being done is creative or social. One characteristic of deep learning and artificial intelligence, is that it doesn’t necessarily displace work: it can enhance existing jobs.
Already, according to one study, there are only two job categories in the United States that don’t have any digital technologies involved: dishwashing and cooking. That means that almost every single type of work being done today in the United States, requires some sort of computer use. And that’s based on data for today, not the future.
If you think about someone working in customer service, it’s highly likely that, even today, they will be working with some sort of customer relationship management system or CRM. If you think of someone in a creative profession, it’s likely that they will be using technology that automates parts of their work, allowing them to do more work, faster.
What this means in practice is that, while we might not know exactly what jobs will be around tomorrow we do know what skills that will be needed in the future.
As the OECD studies highlighted, almost all workers will need to have general digital skills. That includes the ability to work safely and effectively with a computer, to use common office applications, and work with others using basic online tools. A number of professions and career paths are likely to demand higher level or more technical computer skills, including the ability to code. It is essential that everyone has the opportunity to develop these skills, whether they are already in the workforce, or are still in education. Effective training, backed up by internationally recognised certification has a big role to play in this.
The simple message is, future jobs are digital jobs. Whatever your career ambitions are, computers will probably have some role in achieving them. So get ready for the future of work, because it is right around the corner.