Back to the future (of work)

I don’t fear the robots. What I do fear is the inability of leaders and institutions to find new way to positively challenge the energies of their citizens and adequately redistribute the gains of 4ID (otherwise known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an “Age of Convergence” brought about by digital technology).

It is becoming clearer that a fundamental overhaul of education, at a philosophical as well as operational level, is necessary. The current Western system has its roots in an earlier industrial age. A rural workforce flooding into cities needed reprogramming (the original “3 Rs” of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) in order to navigate the alien environment in which they found themselves, and function at a level which would ensure that they were productive (in short, to carry out the rote function to which they were assigned within the factory). Robotic wetware, one might say. There is a growing, and long overdue, realization that this system is not fit for purpose.

During the last Industrial Revolution, William Morris (best known for the Arts & Crafts movement) wrote romantically (if somewhat naively) about a bygone age when man took pride in the artistry of his work, in opposition to what he saw as the proto-robotisation of human labour: “no human ingenuity can produce such work as this without pleasure being a third party to the brain that conceived it and the hand that fashioned it”. Former US president Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying that there can be no greater gift than to work hard at work that is worth doing and, more recently, Elon Musk has opined that “people work better when they know what the goal is, and why. It’s important that people look forward to coming to work”.

Automation is coming, and it may come fast. It won’t, in my view, threaten work in the broader sense, as we will always be driven to explore, to understand, and to create. The nature of “jobs”, however, will be transformed. Software and robots can take care of “3D” jobs (dull, dangerous and dirty), not just on the factory floor, but also the “3R” jobs in the white collar space (rote, repetitive and rubbish).

We are starting to see discussions at a global policy level about automation and the place of human beings in a world transformed by 4ID. I believe that this contribution resides in creativity, intuition and artistic achievement (all areas which can, of course, be enhanced by automation). Let’s hope our leaders agree.

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