What Will the Future of Work Be Like?
AI and robotics will change almost every profession, the historian, philosopher and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari told the Nordic Business Forum audience in Helsinki.
Harari was one of the most anticipated speakers in NBF Helsinki and he started his speech by reminding of one important fact about the job market in 2050—nobody knows what it’s going to be like. The only thing we can be certain of is that it will be completely different from what we know today.
“Many jobs of today will disappear by 2050. The big question is, what will this do to the job market and human society?”
People are nervous, but the fear of automation is nothing new. Harari reminded the audience that automation has been around since the start of the industrial revolution. The challenge with it has never been the complete disappearance of jobs but rather adapting to the new jobs and the job market. Humans had a hard time learning how to adapt to the power of the steam engine and electricity. In the past, we’ve seen that when old jobs go, new jobs are created, and the same thing is likely to happen in the future. The fact is though that the technologies driving innovation today, such as AI, robotics, and bioengineering, are even more powerful.
“We can not afford any more failed experiments. If we don’t get it right this time, the result will be a complete annihilation of humankind.”
To get it right, the key question is what humans will be doing in 2050 and what kinds of jobs and tasks will be taken over by computers and robots? Harari reminded the audience that this question is not a theoretical question about the future but a very practical question about today. The key is to stay relevant.
To stay relevant in the 21st century will require new skills and new attitudes like unlearning, relearning and processing information. According to Harari it means people need the ability to unlearn previous skills and approaches. The most important skill of the 21st century will not be specific skills such as learning code, but the ability to master new skills and to move from one profession to another throughout our lives. We will also need to learn how to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable information.
For thousands of years, the model was linear. First you learn, then you work. This model is now becoming irrelevant. As more and more activities move online, people in their sixties and seventies will still need to adapt. With virtual reality VR, they may even need to learn how to walk and talk again in the VR world. As more jobs move into VR, those who can’t learn these skills will be left behind.
“We’ll have big changes by 2025, bigger changes by 2035 and an even bigger revolution in 2045. Old jobs will disappear, new jobs will emerge, but the new jobs too will quickly change and vanish. People will have to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once but again and again and this will create psychological pressure.”
The jobs which will be done by computers will depend on what humans want them to do. Do we want them to be more intelligent than us? If that’s the case, is it enough for computers to gain intelligence to take on certain tasks – such as driverless cars? Or do we want empathy, relationship or friendship? If so, that’s not possible to automate. What we want is not someone who can solve problems for us, but someone who can feel things.
Harari pointed out that AI does not have any emotions of its own, but it can learn to recognize these patterns in human beings. Computers may outperform people in recognizing human emotions because they don’t have any emotions of their own.
As computers become more intelligent, some people are naturally raising the question of consciousness. On this, he is skeptical.
“We shouldn’t confuse intelligence with consciousness. Contrary to what we see in science fiction films, there is no reason to think that as computers gain intelligence they will gain consciousness.”
Consciousness is the ability to feel emotions. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Over the past half-century, we have seen a dramatic increase in computer intelligence. At the same time, we’ve seen precisely zero change in computer consciousness. Harari reminded the audience that there might be several different roads leading to super-intelligence, and only some of the roads lead to consciousness.
Harari challenged the way we perceive work roles in relation to automation. Some of the skills that we cherish as unique human abilities may actually be automated rather easily, whereas other skills that we tend to look down on may be far more difficult to automate. Take weddings, for example. On a technical level, the job of a priest can be automated much easier than anything else. All that is needed is to repeat the text and print out a certificate. So why, Harari asked, do we think car drivers should be worried, but priests are safe?
Another example comes from health care. According to Harari it is easier to automate the job of a doctor than the job of a nurse.
“Doctors mainly gather medical data, analyze it, provide a diagnosis, and recommend a treatment. It means the work is mainly about gathering data and finding patterns in that data. Pattern recognition and finding patterns is exactly what AI is doing better than human beings. In contrast, it is much more difficult to automate the jobs of a nurse who place bandages on injured people or give injections to a crying child. AI is very far from gaining the motor and social skills necessary to perform such tasks.”
According to Harari AI is nowhere near its full potential and that is also true for human beings. “For every euro and minute we spend developing AI, we should spend at least a euro and a minute on exploring and developing our own minds.”
All this requires a lot of mental flexibility, but the big question is: do we have what it takes to survive in the 21st century? Coping with the future of work, Harari believes, will be difficult in many ways.
“It is stressful to reinvent yourself. If you’re a truck driver who has been replaced by a computer, how do you reinvent yourself with any other job which has not been automated”, he asked.
Even if you can adjust, it might not be a long-term solution because the job market will continue to change. Harari pointed out that the automation is not a one-off event. It will be a ‘cascade of ever bigger disruption’.
To thrive in the new world, Harari argued that we will have to unleash the untapped potential of humankind. Preparing for the future starts with education today.
“Consider a six-year-old girl, who starts her first grade in school, she will be 34 in 2050. What should we teach her today that she will have the necessary skills for the future job market,” Harari concluded.
Text: Mia Heiskanen
Photos: Nordic Business Forum
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