Forecasting The Future: Are We Asking The Right Questions?

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“Maybe you loved the supercheap prices at your favorite store, but then noticed that the factory you might have worked for closed up for good.” -Jaron Lanier Who Owns The Future?

We know something has changed…

We can feel the shift.

Yet, we just can’t quite put our finger on it.

Is it real?  Or is it more fake news?  Who do we believe?  The economists?  The technologists?  The news?  And if the news, which news?

If things are so much better, why are we seeing a widening between the have’s and the have not’s?

As Jaron Lanier shares in Who Owns The Future? “If network technology is supposed to be so good for everyone, why has the developed world suffered so much just as the technology has become widespread?  Why was there so much economic pain at once all over the developed world just as computer networking dug in to every aspect of human activity, in the early 21st century?”

Survey after survey share the need for us and our organizations to brace for the future.  Especially the future of work and the unpredictable and often exponential changes that are heading our way.  CEO after CEO across the globe share deep concerns over a skills gap that is expanding and widening at a rapid rate and their feeling that education, reskilling and upskilling will be unable to keep pace with the rapid and volatile rate of change and shifting worker expectations for the future that accompanies that change.  For example, “The World Economic Forum predicts that 35 percent of the skills necessary to thrive in a job today will be different five years from now.”  Fast Company adds that, “According to the New York Times, there are only about 10,000 people in the world who have the necessary skills to build the complicated, mathematical algorithms necessary to create next-gen artificial intelligence.” 

We are seeing a societal disconnect as the values of the past collide with the desired skills for the future.

All the while, the problem of forecasting the future is getting more and more difficult to determine.  How will work change?  Will there be work?  If so, what kind of work will be in demand?  What pathways lead to more lucrative opportunities for the future?  What will be the desired skills and skillsets for the future?  Will technology lead to greater automation or more collaborative augmentation?  How do we remain relevant, as individuals and organizations?

Difficult questions with very few answers.  As Joi Ito shares in Whiplash, “It’s to recognize that we are all susceptible to misinterpreting the technological tea leaves, that we are all blinkered by prevailing systems of thought.”  

And while we don’t have any “tea leaves” to help us predict the future, we do need to be forecasting and preparing for a very uncertain and non-obvious future.  We can ill-afford to sit on our hands and hope it all works out.

We have to become much more aware.

Especially in considering that there are ones, often considered to be the pessimistic of the future, who rail out against the coming automation and the vast amount of jobs that will be decimated and lost to robots and artificial intelligence.  While there are those who stand in the middle, who share a slightly less pessimistic view that there will be a large number of jobs lost to automation and artificial intelligence, but new jobs will be created by new technology to help fill the gaps of those jobs lost.  Yet, most many that the amount of jobs created will be far less and will also require new, and often far more advanced skills and skillsets.  While on the other side, there are others who believe that we are headed towards a time of more abundance where automation and artificial intelligence will not only change the way we work, but very possibly may negate the need for us to work at all in the future.

No matter what future camp we may fall towards, what we must all be willing to recognize is that our world is undergoing some very profound shifts and it is up to us become much more aware of the affect and effect these shifts will have on individuals and organizations in the present and the future.

As Joi Ito shares in Whiplash, “What seems increasingly evident is that the primary condition of the network era is not just rapid change, but constant change.”  For which he shares, “Our technologies have outpaced our ability, as a society, to understand them.  Now we need to catch up.”  And adds, “Our current cognitive tool set leaves us ill-equipped to comprehend the profound implications posed by rapid advances in everything…”

In many ways, what we have valued in the past, does not look too as being valued as much or in the same way in the future.  As technology has advanced through time, what humans were valued for, especially in the workplace, has had to change in accordance.

However, at this point, we see the societal shifts being created by technology, but, as of yet, we are not seeing those same kind of responses economically.

The interesting consideration, one which we don’t often discuss, especially as we consider human value in the midst of automation and artificial intelligence, is that the one thing we have come to deeply value in what Joi Ito shares as the “network era,” we have also come to treat as a “free” commodity.

And that commodity is information.

In a time when what value we can add is coming under intense scrutiny for the future, especially as automation and artificial intelligence stride confidently forward, the one thing we currently do add is providing us no consequential value.  As society shifts around us and the world of work undergoes changes, it would seem that our economy would have to change in response, especially as what we value in the present may not be valued, or as much, in the future.  As Jaron Lanier shares in Who Owns The Future?  “It is entirely legitimate to understand that people are still needed and valuable when the loom can run without human muscle power.  It is still running on human thought.”

In a world where information has become free, we may need to rethink its economic value in the face of the advancing power of automation and artificial intelligence.

Which is why it is imperative that we imbue our students with not just a deeper understanding of the 4Cs, but equip them with the innovative, problem-solving skills to not only move forward into the future more positively, relevantly and successfully, but to be able to solve many of these adaptive challenges and problems that we will eventually bestow upon them.

“The key question isn’t “How much will be automated?”  It’s how we’ll conceive of whatever can’t be automated at a given time.  Even if there are new demands for people to perform new tasks in support of what we perceive as automation, we might apply antihuman values that define the new roles as not being “genuine work.”  So the right question is “How many jobs might be lost to automation if we think about automation the wrong way?” -Jaron Lanier Who Owns The Future?

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