A positive view on the future of human work as intelligent machines rise


I recently delivered a keynote on the Future of Work and Jobs at the Youth in Technology conference organized by the Australian Computer Society.

An article in CIO magazine titled Humans versus machines: Who will be employed in future? reviewed some of the highlights of Dawson’s speech. After the article’s opening it quotes:

“Robots and artificial intelligence are getting better and better over time. So we have robot vacuum cleaners, we have robot dish washers… [robots] being able to fold the laundry. Now this happens to be quite expensive machines… but we can have household robots do these kinds of tasks,” said Dawson.

“Drivers are being challenged. Drivers may not exist. Mercedes just announced they have a semi-trailer, a big truck, which is going to drive around without a driver driving it.”

More knowledge tasks are also being handed over to machines, he said. He used the example of IBM’s Watson supercomputer assisting doctors by looking through hundreds of thousands of documents and data to come up with a suggested diagnosis to complex diseases such as cancer.

We absolutely need to recognize how machines can take over some existing jobs, but a more powerful frame is seeing how humans and machines can best work together.

However, it doesn’t have to be a situation where it’s humans versus machines and there are fewer jobs for people, Dawson said. Jobs for humans are not necessarily reducing, just changing, and it’s more about working together with machines to increase humans’ capabilities, he said.

A computer first managed to beat a chess grandmaster in 1997, he said. “That’s a long time ago and computers have come a long way since then; yet, the best computers at chess can still be beaten by humans and computers working together. The best chess in the world is played by humans and computers working together,” the futurist said.

“Again, doctors together with technology can be better [themselves] — with the robots, the artificial intelligence.”

The key issue is ongoing skill development, driven by individuals and supported by institutions.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when you did a degree you were able to live off the fruits of your labours for quite some time. Today, when you get a degree, it is already out of date. So what does have value is deep, world-class expertise. You can’t just be the best in your domain locally; you must be at the right level globally,” Dawson said.

“Humans are good at relationships; machines… are not nearly as good. We [humans] can collaborate and work together. So this is where deep expertise is — that we must work with other people, collaborate with other people.

“[The] third piece, which is distinctively human and keeps us miles ahead of the machines, is creativity. The ability to do magic, pull together things that we read or things we dreamed or conversations we’ve had into something that is new.”

We need to choose our domains of expertise, and use peer and community learning to stay on top of our domains. In a fast-changing world the most effective learning is collaborative.

“Clearly you can’t be a world class expert in 20 domains, but you can say there are two complementary domains. Deakin University recently released a master’s in business and data analytics. These two complementary skill sets is where we can create value.”

With technology constantly evolving at a more rapid pace, informal learning will continue to be key in future, Dawson said. He used the example of TopCoder, where coders compete not only for prizes but to learn from others how and why a project succeeded or failed, and improve their own skills and processes.

“If you want to be a world class expert, the only and the real way to do it is find those who are the experts, follow them on their social media, engage and have conversations in that community.”

We need to accentuate and make the most of our humanity. The power that technology gives us means that we must choose wisely how we use that extraordinary power.

Even though machines can be stronger, faster and smarter than humans, they don’t automatically come with humanity, Dawson pointed out. The high-level ethical decisions that humans make means that we can’t simply hand over all power to the machines to run our jobs.

“We have the power to create ourselves; we can change our genetics. We can literally change who we are as humans, let alone the impact on the nature of work and the shape of the planet. This is something where you all must be ethicists, who are making ethical choices.”

Read the full article for more insights.