Will We Fly Blind into the Future of Work?

The world needs “an integrated information strategy” to respond to dramatic shifts in technology and labor markets. One key element of this strategy would be a public-private collaboration to develop new tools for measuring and monitoring technology, jobs, and skills.

I grew up in the UK, in the county of Shropshire to be exact. Shropshire sometimes is called the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution because it was there, starting in 1779, that Abraham Darby III built the world’s first cast iron bridge. It spanned the River Severn in the village of Coalbrookedale, and is still standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The British Industrial Revolution sparked a period of radical economic, social, and political disruption that no one could accurately foresee or manage. With advances in metallurgy, machinery, and steam power, mass production became possible and work moved from houses to factories. Factories needed a plentiful supply of workers and the urban areas around factories grew rapidly. While the standard of living improved for some, the poor and working classes often faced with grim realities. Karl Marx and Charles Dickens found their voices in these times.

In 2017, we are talking about entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution driven by the rise of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI). This is an exciting, but dangerous time. We currently are experiencing the rise of far-right popularism in Europe and the United States due to worker fear and anger over the upheavals of globalization, free trade, and outsourcing. Further disruptions created by loss of jobs to machines will add significantly to pressures on the social fabric.

Unfortunately, there are currently high-profile people, some with a vested interest in pushing AI technologies, who say that technological change will produce as many new jobs as it will take away. Really? I’m not so optimistic, or perhaps not so taken in by the titans of Silicon Valley who measure “social” progress in the volume of online transactions, tweets, and likes.

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group—a family of Internet-based businesses—is very aware of the possibilities of the AI future. Recently, he said that in the next 30 years we are likely to see an AI CEO on the cover of Time magazine. This robotic CEO will be able to make better calculations and more rational decisions than humans—and perhaps more ethical ones, as well. Ma, however, is not just an evangelist for AI; he is more intellectually honest than that:

“Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life.” Why? The rise of AI, a longer life expectancy, and an aging workforce will mean we all will be fighting (perhaps literally) for fewer jobs. Ma wants to keep machines as working partners with humans rather than replacements.

Ma is not alone in warning us about the destructive potential of AI. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking says AI could signal the end of humanity. Tesla’s Elon Musk refers to AI as “summoning the devil.” Bill Gates says, “I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” I think I can safely say, however, that Microsoft is probably pushing ahead as fast as it can.

The Need for an Integrated Information Strategy

The challenge of our time is not the demand for workers as in the British Industrial Revolution, but the lack of demand for workers. The Wall Street Journal says, “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people.” Once upon a time, productivity would increase (largely through the application of new technologies), the economy would grow, and job opportunities would rise. Since 2011, economic growth has not resulted in increased job creation. Old world assumptions need no longer apply.

A new study—entitled “Information Technology and the Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?—published by U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says, “Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.” The co-authors—Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University and Erick Brynjolfsson at the MIT Sloan School of Management—look to data for solutions.

Mitchell and Brynjolfsson say what America needs is “an integrated information strategy” to respond to dramatic shifts in technology and labor markets. One key element of this strategy would be a public-private collaboration to develop new tools for measuring and monitoring technology, jobs, and skills. Information from many sources will be required to develop an AI Index (like the Consumer Price Index), but as the authors point out, “much of the needed data for observing, understanding, and adapting to the workforce challenges are not gathered in a systematic way, or worse, simply do not exist.”

In theory, by pulling together data from traditional government statistics and online services such as LinkedIn and Udacity, a worker in a declining occupation could gain useful insights into a more promising occupation—one with a similar, supplementary, or different skill set. Information on job openings, and the effectiveness of training programs for skill development and job placement also could be available. Currently, however, government surveys are not designed to track technology and its impact.

One initiative that might point in the right direction is Skillful, which is a collaboration between the Markle Foundation, LinkedIn, Arizona State University, and edX (a nonprofit provider of online courses). Skillful partners with employers, educators, and local governments in Colorado and the Phoenix area to link jobs, skills, and training in a more integrated way.

“Perfection Here Is Not a Prerequisite for Utility”

The digital revolution requires governments, employers, employees, and training providers to collaborate to make more informed decisions about work and the workforce. This will be a large, but necessary, undertaking. No data infrastructure will be perfect, but as Mitchell and Brynjolfsson argue, “perfection here is not a prerequisite for utility—we need and can have a dramatic improvement over flying blind.”

Ironically, we can, perhaps, use not just data collection, but AI to help us avoid flying blind into the future. Let’s be proactive for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

 Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”