Stuff News | People skills may count the most in a more automated world

Get ready for a new career as an “empathy trainer”, “explainability strategist,” or perhaps as an “artificial intelligence safety engineer”.

As new technologies cut a swathe through traditional white collar jobs, these are some of the new roles that could rise up in their place, according to a new book by Accenture chief technology officer Paul Daugherty and fellow researcher Jim Wilson.

It is a topsy-turvy world perhaps, where economic success is defined as ensuring there is enough work to keep everyone gainfully employed.

But that hasn’t stopped people through the ages fretting that new technology may leave us all paupers.

Former finance minister Sir Michael Cullen said during a speech in Queenstown in February that “economic Cassandras” had been busy for 200 years, predicting mass unemployment due to technologically-driven change.

But he likened that to “looking at a doughnut and seeing only the hole”.

“So far, general employment collapse from technological change has not happened to any great extent.”

The proportion of people in paid employment was near “long-term historic highs” rather than teetering on the edge of disaster, he argued.

That is not to say the process of job destruction and creation always run smooth.

From elevator attendants and telephone-switchboard operators, to blacksmiths and typists; there are careers that have fallen by the wayside never to return.

Now, thanks to steady advances in computational technology, a new range of job on the frontline.

Bookkeepers, law clerks, truck drivers, customer service staff and certain kinds of medical professionals such as radiologists have increasing reason to be concerned about their livelihoods.

The common theme is those jobs mostly involve either rapidly interpreting large volumes data – be it numerical, verbal or (increasingly) visual information – or channelling information back to the public.

Just a few years ago it was incredibly difficult to get computers to classify visual images, but a huge amount of progress has been made in pursuit of self-driving cars, says Amazon Web Services (AWS) head of emerging technologies Olivier Klein.

In data centres owned by AWS, computer servers are being trained to analyse photographs of the equipment on top of power poles to spot problems that may mean the power network is in need of maintenance.

A few years ago, there may have been little point in getting software to do that work. After all, if someone could photograph the poles, they could make the call whether something needed fixing themselves.

But another technology – cheap drones – has changed the equation.

Put drones equipped with 4K cameras and artificial intelligence together, and it is possible for thousands of kilometres of power lines to be inspected without human intervention.

Christchurch consultant Roger Dennis, who once co-led an ambitious project by oil giant Shell to forecast the future, says rapid changes tend to occur when technological progress in multiple areas come together.

Technologies move at different speeds, he told a conference organised by Engineering NZ in March.

“When people get caught by surprise is when someone takes one block off one stack, and combines it with two or three others.”

Dennis sees jobs as increasingly being filled by half-man, half-machine – with people contributing the “empathy, collaboration and intuition”.

Klein believes tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning will simply free workers up to focus on “higher-value activities”, which is a common view.

“Will it remove or replace jobs? Not at all, it will just enhance some of those experiences so people can focus on non-repetitive tasks,” he says.

He uses the example of Amazon Go grocery stores in the United States which have introduced a new payment technology to do away with check-outs altogether, but which still employ people on the shop floor.

“Now, instead of scanning your products, these people can focus on giving you better guidance on where to find products and what they are made of.”

The idea that the future of work will necessitate everyone – or even more people – riding the automation wave in ever more skillful ways is just a guess though.

Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox worries that the futuristic new jobs discussed by Accenture’s thought-leaders appear as though they may be somewhat transitory themselves, and equally susceptible to further automation.

Empathy trainers would, for example, teach artificial intelligence software to display the traits of compassion, while explainability strategists would be “responsible for making important judgment calls about which AI technologies might best be deployed for specific applications”.

Ted Verkade, chief executive Baker Tilly, of one of the world’s largest accounting firms, says the indispensable role of humans in that industry may be not so much in working out what advice to give clients, as in actually communicating it.

“When an accounting professional is talking to a client they can look at them and see how they feel about what is being said and massage that conversation to try to create the feeling that they are looking for in that client. A machine can’t do that.”

Klein clarifies that computers are now better than people at detecting facial expressions – just worse than people at working out what they mean in context.

If Verkade is right, the irony may then be that in a more automated world, the key skills to have may not be about being good with technology, but being good with people.

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff says no-one has been able to predict the future of work well

But he believes change will be driven by four big forces, including aging demographics, globalisation and climate change, and not just new technology.

“Climate change could really have some impact on the work that we need to do on this planet.

“We might have to relocate cities. We really don’t know.”

There is no reason people shouldn’t be in control of their own destinies, and planning will be key, Wagstaff says.

“Our view is we need to figure out industry by industry where are we, where we want to get to, and how we are going to get there.

“Let’s actively work that out, rather than just letting it happen to us and risk a severe dislocation and a damaging transition.”

He describes a secure income as “a human need”.

“There is definitely a risk of permanent secure employment being under threat from ‘Uber’-like technologies.”

But like Cullen, he suggests looking at the hole of the donut.

“With all the new technology that has been introduced in the last 30 years, we have dropped our aspirations for 35-hour working week. How is that? What it would suggest is new technology hasn’t reduced the amount of work that needs to be done.”

Our ability to cope with change is probably also increasing, he says.

“People have been born into a world where new technology is always evolving so that is the new normal. Adjusting to a world where that just speeds up a bit may not be as big a challenge as if we were all just flat-footed.”

Is change really speeding up?

Ben Reid, executive director of New Zealand’s AI Forum, says technologies such as artificial intelligence need to be put in perspective.

The organisation has reviewed more than 50 international papers on the potential impacts of AI and has found that AI-driven job displacement will have only a “relatively modest influence overall”, he says.

“We should not expect AI to be different to any other technology-driven change in recent times,” he argues.

In the “worst case scenario”, Reid estimates advances in the technology would only add to 10 per cent to the total “natural” job churn over the next 40 years.

“Based on our analysis, there is no obvious reason why existing labour market support policies would not be able to cope. It will be more about changes to jobs as automation alters the tasks within a job and the skills needed – rather than the entire job being lost.”


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