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Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.
The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.
To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.
Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.
What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.
We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.
Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.
“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”
Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.
1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.
2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.
3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?
4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?
5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.
Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”
One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.
But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.
In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”
Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.
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We Need to Start Modeling Alternative Futures
Andrew Marino | The Verge
“‘I’m going to be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, at this moment in time I cannot tell you what things are going to look like in three months,’ [says quantitative futurist Amy Webb.] ‘And that’s fine because that tells us we still have some agency. …The good news is if you are willing to lean into uncertainty and to accept the fact that you can’t control everything, but also you are not helpless in whatever comes next.'”
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Marion Fourcade and Henry Farrell | Wired
“As we try to protect democracy from coronavirus, we must see technology as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. …If we’re very lucky, we’ll have restrained, targeted, and temporary measures that will be effective against the pandemic. If we’re not, we’ll create an open-ended, sweeping surveillance system that will undermine democratic freedoms without doing much to stop coronavirus.”
Why Does It Suddenly Feel Like 1999 on the Internet?
Tanya Basu and Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“You see it in the renewed willingness of people to form virtual relationships. …Now casually hanging out with randos (virtually, of course) is cool again. People are joining video calls with people they’ve never met for everything from happy hours to book clubs to late-night flirting. They’re sharing in collective moments of creativity on Google Sheets, looking for new pandemic pen pals, and sending softer, less pointed emails.”
Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together
Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick | The New York Times
“While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.”
A Debate Between AI Experts Shows a Battle Over the Technology’s Future
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The disagreements [the two experts] expressed mirror many of the clashes within the field, highlighting how powerfully the technology has been shaped by a persistent battle of ideas and how little certainty there is about where it’s headed next.”
Meet the Xenobots, Virtual Creatures Brought to Life
Joshua Sokol | The New York Times
“If the last few decades of progress in artificial intelligence and in molecular biology hooked up, their love child—a class of life unlike anything that has ever lived—might resemble the dark specks doing lazy laps around a petri dish in a laboratory at Tufts University.”
Rivian Wants to Bring Electric Trucks to the Masses
Jon Gertner | Wired
“The pickup walks a careful line between Detroit traditionalism and EV iconoclasm. Where Tesla’s forthcoming Cybertruck looks like origami on wheels, the R1T, slim and limber, looks more like an F-150 on a gym-and-yoga regimen.”
The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power
John R. Quain | Gizmodo
“To save us from the coming climate catastrophe, we need an energy hero, boasting limitless power and no greenhouse gas emissions (or nearly none). So it’s time, say some analysts, to resuscitate the nuclear energy industry. Doing so could provide carbon-free energy. But any plan to make nuclear power a big part of the energy mix also comes with serious financial risks as well as questions about if there’s enough time to enlist an army of nuclear power plants in the battle against the climate crisis.”
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