Future of Things (FoT): In An Era of Encroachment

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It’s interesting how seldom we consider what we believe to be innovative today, will eventually become the status quo of tomorrow.

Not that long ago we marveled at the idea of humans being able to fly.  Now we have more than eight million people who fly through our skies each day, supported by an intricate infrastructure and expansive system of supports worldwide to ensure the safety and comfort of those eight million arrivals and departures.  No longer do we contemplate the wonder of flight, as much as we complain of small seats and the lack of wifi.

As Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, USA puts forth, “[In the future], the Internet will disappear…you won’t even sense it, it will be part of your presence all the time.”  Which makes me think of how far we have come from our first curiosity and wonder of the possibility for flight, to what we have created today.  We no longer marvel or fancy the idea of flight, or how far the current level of technology has really taken us, or even the incredibly vast infrastructure and system we have created in support of flight.

Rather, it has just become a natural part of our everyday life.

In many ways, we stand at that same place of consideration, curiosity and wonder we had towards flight, when it comes to this idea of automation and artificial intelligence in today’s world.

Determined to figure out what we can do, well before we know out what we should do.

Which takes me back to the idea of flight and Eric Schmidt’s quote on the presence of the Internet, especially in light of the rapid and accelerated pace of change in today’s world…

It makes me wonder if automation and artificial intelligence will just become the new normal and natural part of our everyday lives in the future?  If so, how long?  5 years?  10 years?  20 years?  How long before its presence is no longer noticed or felt, it just is?  And how will that change our personal and professional lives?  How will it change the way we live and work?  How will it change our world and our place in it?  

While we don’t have that same intricate and expansive infrastructure and system that we have since built up from that first flight, we do know that idea of automation and artificial intelligence in our world is no longer that grounded and curious wonderer envisioning a time in which flight is possible.  From agriculture to manufacturing, from driverless cars and trucks to neural networks, the march is on.

The question then is no longer if it is coming, but where is it actually taking us.

And while we are not in a time where automation and artificial intelligence can take away all of work, it is definitely a time of encroachment into that world.  As Thomas Davenport and Julie Kirby share in Only Humans Need Apply, “As computer programs focus on the tasks they can do, it’s those pieces of jobs that are taken away.  The encroachment happens one task at a time, meaning that a job that is only 10 percent automatable doesn’t go away.  It’s just that, now, nine holders of that job can do what used to be the work of ten.”  

As they add, “Instead, they’re just nudged, nudged, nudged toward the door.”

In many ways, automation and artificial intelligence are like the early days of flight, as we figured out what we could do, it also opened up a plethora of new possibilities and new pathways as it expanded its wings into the future.  No one could have foretold from those first flights, the level of sophistication that we would have today, as well as the millions of jobs and opportunities it has provided for people, from airports to travel agencies.

But what we do know, it required new skills, new learnings, and the ability to adapt to those changes.

So, then the question becomes, will automation and artificial intelligence have the same effect on our future world as flight has had on our past?  Or will it be different this time, as many have predicted.  Will its ramifications on the future dare us into new arenas or  push us into dire straits?  Will automation and artificial intelligence decimate jobs and work as we have known it, as many have anticipated, or will it rewrite the rules of work?

While time will only tell, for now, we must be aware that we exist in a time of encroachment by automation and artificial intelligence.  

Which means we are living in the nudge.  A few jobs here, a few jobs there.  Often barely noticeable.  Almost like a frog that has found its way into a vat of heating water, we don’t understand that the water is boiling until it is too late.  Or as Hemingway adds, “gradually, then suddenly.”

It doesn’t mean that we no longer need cashiers, it just means that we don’t need as many.  It doesn’t mean that we no longer need radiologists, we just don’t need as many.  And so on and so on.  I think you get the picture.

As this encroachment increases, so will the need for people to adapt and learn.  It requires that we are constantly upskilling our knowledge and our skillsets.  Especially as Davenport and Kirby share, “The parts of our jobs we’ll keep are just the parts that can’t be codified.”  For which they add, “If work can be codified, it can be automated.  And there’s also the corollary: If it can automated in an economical fashion, it will be.  Already we’re seeing a rapid decomposition of jobs and automation of the most modifiable parts – which are sometimes the parts that have required the greatest education and experience.”

Which means, in the future, like the Internet that Eric Schmidt speaks of, upskilling will need to become a natural part of our existence.  To the point that it won’t even be felt.  Continuous learning will just become a part of who we are and how we live and work.  There will be this need for us all to become curious, creative, critical thinkers.

Especially as automation and artificial intelligence enhance the “threat of deskilling.”  Davenport and Kirby add in Only Humans Need Apply, “The jobs are deskilled when technologies are introduced that no longer require workers to have formerly necessary skills – meaning that semiskilled our unskilled workers can now hold those jobs. In turn, the labor force is deskilled when, enough machines having taken over a particular task, the skill becomes a ‘lost art’ to people.”

In many ways, we are seeing the deskilling of the “hard skills” and the necessity for upskilling what are known as the “soft skills,” or those skills that remain difficult for automation and artificial intelligence to replicate and codify.

Either way, awareness is paramount as automation and artificial intelligence begins to get its wings.  

Which means that the question is no longer as much about whether automation and artificial intelligence will come after my job, but whether or not I am continuously learning the skills, skillsets, and knowledge that will still make me viable and valuable whether automation or artificial intelligence comes after my job or not.

I will leave you with these thoughts from Davenport and Kirby, “It’s important to understand all this because, in our work alongside cognitive technologies, we will need to keep adjusting to their evolving capabilities.  To be able to anticipate how our own roles will change, we must be able to predict the pathways from today’s state of the art to future possibilities.”  For which they add…

“Complacency is not an option.”


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