I.

The future of work

Having completed the first four chapters of this course, we now hope that you have a better and deeper understanding of some key areas of emerging technologies. As we have seen throughout this course, emerging technologies are by their very definition characterised by radical novelty, relatively fast growth, prominent impact, uncertainty and ambiguity. Throughout our closer looks into various areas like robotics and AR/VR we have discussed how these emerging technologies will create job opportunities and redefine various industries. But what does this mean for the future of work in general?

Future of work

In recent years, a vast amount of attention was paid to the impact and effect of emerging technologies on work, sometimes referred to as the changing world of work, particularly by popular media and consultants. Media headlines such as “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now before it’s too late” (Elliott, The Guardian International Edition, 2018) have become commonplace. 

While it is true to say that the most recent advances in emerging technologies are having a dramatic effect on the workplace, leading experts in the field of AI and Industry 4.0, have pointed out that emerging technologies utilising machine learning, like robotics and IoT, will replace some of the individual tasks that workers currently do, but not necessarily whole jobs. 

Note

MIT study shows AI will replace tasks not jobs

"Radiologists, for instance, have 26 distinct tasks associated with their job", says MIT Sloan Professor, Erik Brynjolfsson. "Reading medical images is a task well-suited for machine learning, with computers starting to become better at image recognition than humans. But interpersonal skills like conveying health care information to a patient are not as easily or effectively performed by machines.

In almost every occupation, there are at least some tasks that could be affected, but there are also many tasks in every occupation that won’t. That said, some occupations do have relatively more tasks that are likely to be affected by machine learning”.

When certain tasks are automated by machines equipped with emerging technologies, it will enable humans at work to spend more time focusing on tasks that are not suited to those performed by computers. This will mean that jobs of the future will focus less on repetitive and manual tasks and more than ever on uniquely human skills like creativity, empathy, adaptability to novel and changing situations, and collaborative thinking. 

A person and icons of human traits

Evolving skills needs

The ‘Future of Jobs Report 2020' from The World Economic Forum paints a stark picture of jobs at risk of disruption as we move towards 2025. It further outlines the emerging skills that will be required by people in the various sectors of our economies and the impact that emerging technologies will have on employment in these areas of work. "The top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility." 

Furthermore, PwC Global in their report ‘Workforce of the future - The competing forces shaping 2030’ outline the emerging technological forces shaping the future of employment and the workplace, and point out that adaptability is the key to future employability. As they state in the report, “one clear lesson arises from our analysis: adaptability – in organisations, individuals and society – is essential for navigating the changes ahead”. As discussed in chapter 1, reskilling and upskilling is part of this adaptability.   

Example

Gig economy

Technological advancement is often associated with other changes within the world of work that might be enabled by the technology itself, like the disintegration of the traditional employment relationship to be replaced with gig economy work, an increased emphasis on flexibility and agility at work, and a new generation of employees with vastly different attitudes to the previous workforce. This was evident during the Covid-19 pandemic globally.

  • The gig economy is based on flexible, temporary, or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.

  • The gig economy can benefit workers, businesses and consumers by making work more adaptable to the needs of the moment and demand for flexible lifestyles.

  • At the same time, the gig economy can have downsides due to the erosion of the traditional economic relationships between workers, businesses and clients.

The future workplace

This development in how we interact with the digital world opens up a whole host of new methods, strategies and environments in our daily lives and especially in the workplace – from individual to collaborative teamwork contexts, in physical, virtual and remote environments. How we access and use information will be transformed in all areas of our personal and working lives as humankind is transported to virtual worlds for simulation, modelling and projection in environments that can’t be accessed in the real world. 

Note

It’s important to point out that ubiquitous computing and pervasive computing are not the same thing. Ubiquitous means everywhere. Pervasive means "diffused throughout every part of”. In fact, that's where the difference between these two types of computing lies. Pervasive computing involves devices like handhelds – small, easy-to-use devices – through which we are and will be able to get instant information on anything and everything. That is the promise of web-enabled mobile phones. Ubiquitous computing bypasses and foregoes our having to use computers at all. Instead, it's computing in the background, with technology embedded in the things we already use.

Putting that into context, our workplaces will utilise more and more ubiquitous computing solutions to ensure a more efficient and safer workplace environment, while in our daily lives we continue to use pervasive technologies that will become more and more ‘driven’ by emerging ubiquitous computing solutions and algorithms. 

Thanks to emerging technologies, 'intelligent enterprises', which enable knowledge workers to process and analyse massive amounts of data and to collaborate and monitor things, are reimagining and reinventing the way they do business and how they interact with these technologies. Collaboration tools such as cloud-based communications applications, workflow organisers, shared documents and whiteboards are increasingly enabling rapid teamwork and work iteration remotely. Advancements in emerging technologies such as IoT-enabled voice assistants, AI-enhanced predictive tools, and high-speed mobile internet, will increase human productivity levels to heights unimaginable in the past century. Through the use of these emerging tools, these enterprises are advancing their organisations in ways that not only meet their defined goals, but also benefit citizens, communities and society as a whole.

Issues such as privacy, ethics and security are three such areas that have always been part of society, but which have increasingly come to prominence in recent years as a result of the evolution, implementation and rollout of emerging technologies globally. The more ubiquitous these technologies become, the more these problems will need to be tackled pro-actively and on a societal as well and business level. We will look at this in the next and final section.

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II. Privacy and ethics in a digital age