Automation predicted to cut workforce in half, but education could decide who stays

Do you see yourself partnering with robots to do your job? Many people already are finding that working with robots and other technologies has greatly improved their ability to do their jobs. For some, partnering with a robot partner has given them superpowers.

Take the case of a women with leukemia who wasn’t responding to treatment. To solve the mystery, doctors asked IBM’s Watson, a supercomputer loaded with artificial intelligence, to figure it out. In just 10 minutes, Watson diagnosed the right type of leukemia, which required a different type of treatment. Watson did in 10 minutes what doctors couldn’t do in many months. Because of partnering with a machine, a woman’s life was saved and she was spared from more treatments that didn’t work.

The future of work, and living, will be where humans and machines share the burden. The future is filled with machines doing more than previously thought possible. Today’s artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robots, “Internet of things” and other technologies can drive cars, write fiction and annual reports, do legal research and accounting, act as caregivers to the elderly, serve food in restaurants, and 3-D print houses. The challenge is not what more machines can do, but figuring out how to partner with these new assistants.

As we navigate a world that is increasingly automated and hyperconnected, we need to determine what it means to be human in a digital world. Technology will not only affect how we do our work, but the very definition of what work is. We need to start preparing and planning for the disruptions that we are beginning to glimpse today.

What kinds of disruptions? In the report “Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation” by McKinsey Global Institute, the authors ask: “What will be the impact of automation efforts like these, multiplied many times across different sectors of the economy? Can we look forward to vast improvements in productivity, freedom from boring work, and improved quality of life? Should we fear threats to jobs, disruptions to organizations, and strains on the social fabric?”

McKinsey analysts think many job functions will be automated, but few jobs eliminated. Other researchers predict that 50 percent of today’s jobs will be gone by 2025–2030. In our competitive economy, as long as technology offers ways to get work done that is cheaper, faster, more efficient and reliable, we will see companies adopting new technologies, or perish in a losing battle for profitability.

Coupled with the speed of technological development are other reasons for business to embrace new technologies such as the increased labor costs, globalization of the economy, talent shortage and failure to educate the workforce with “in demand” skills.

In a World Economic Forum report, “The Future of Jobs,” Klaus Schwab and Richard Samans wrote, “We are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing and biotechnology, to name just a few, are all building on and amplifying one another. This will lay the foundation for a revolution more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen. Smart systems — homes, factories, farms, grids or cities — will help tackle problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change. While the impending change holds great promise, the patterns of consumption, production and employment created by it also pose major challenges requiring proactive adaptation by corporations, governments and individuals.”

The fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. We need to change our educational system to provide the skills needed to do things machines cannot do. This means new ways of marrying critical thinking with creativity. Of solving problems innovatively by utilizing the new tools at our disposal. Of truly capitalizing on being able to partner with machines that have vast access to data and knowledge.

Knowing that new jobs being created in the fourth Industrial Revolution require higher skill sets, we need the education of our current and future workforce to meet that skills demand. Now is the time to invest in workforce training so that we have the workforce able to take advantage of the assists that machines can, and will, provide.

How this new age of automation plays out is in our hands. There is no doubt that robots are here to stay. Now is the time to prepare, so we can minimize the job displacements and ensure that the North Bay retains its competitive edge.

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