TORONTO – Outside of tech circles, responses to the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence are often filled with more trepidation than anticipation, with many statistics emphasizing AI’s ability to eliminate jobs rather than create them – but according to a leading employment expert, there’s no need to worry.
During a Sept. 13 appearance at the first-ever Elevate Toronto conference Gary Boles, chair of Singularity University’s future of work division and co-founder of eParachute.com (an online companion to his late father Richard’s perennial bestseller What Colour is your Parachute?), said that as a “cautious optimist,” he believes future developments in AI will ultimately lead to the creation of many more jobs than are lost.
“We have what I call a collective failure of imagination,” he said. “If we all went back 150 years and talked about what was going to happen during the transition from agricultural to industrial, we would have had a failure of imagination regarding how three billion jobs could be created for people to do today. We have that same failure of imagination now.”
Instead of fretting over the dystopian future of 2050, when a combination of automation and globalization will have caused many of today’s jobs to evaporate, we should be discussing how to manage the transition to what Boles called the “digital work economy,” he said.
After all, he noted, AI is rapidly changing many industries already, and could displace thousands or even millions of workers over the coming decades, yet few schools appear to be preparing today’s children and teenagers for the transition.
The students are ready, he emphasized. The system isn’t.
“(Today’s students) have what psychologists call a growth mindset,” Boles said. “They believe the world is their oyster. They believe they can be agents and change things through what they do.”
The methods used to educate them, on the other hand, need to be revised, “because I guarantee you those kids are not going to need to go through a traditional education process,” he said.
Growth vs. legacy
When interviewer Krista Jones, managing director of Toronto incubator MaRS’ work and learning division, began the discussion by citing a series of AI-related statistics – that 47 per cent of North American jobs could be automated within five years, that 65 per cent of the jobs that today’s students will hold by the time they enter the workforce don’t exist yet, that a decimated retail industry will leave them with few chances to enter the working world in the first place – Boles said that such doom and gloom was a product of the same outdated mindset behind current education practices.
(With apologies to Jones, her statistics are from 2013 – newer research predicts that automation could replace 42 per cent of Canadian jobs during the next 20 years, and that 85 per cent of jobs in 2030 don’t exist yet.)
The linear employment model of the mid-20th century, Boles said – attend school, invest in training, find a job in your chosen field – has already given way to an ever-evolving work environment in which a growing number of tasks are being automated every day, but also creating new opportunities – think Uber, AirBNB, and TaskRabbit spurring the gig economy, or the thousands of digital assistants uploaded to the Apple and Google Play stores.
“We have this mentality that the old rules of work are somehow being extrapolated into this new world, and it doesn’t work that way at all,” he said.
Nor does the hand-wringing around AI account for the fact that most employers don’t automate a job simply because they can, Boles added, noting that even the head of Amazon’s logistics division recently told the New York Times that it’s a myth the company intends to replace all of its factory workers, and that automating certain tasks often leads to new opportunities for them.
“In Silicon Valley the number is normally 10X,” Boles told ITBusiness.ca. “If I can do something for one-tenth of the cost, or 10 times better than it’s being done otherwise, then I’m going to automate it.”
Most organizations have a thesis regarding human capital, he said: if one believes humans are extremely costly and every step must be taken to squeeze every benefit possible from them, they’re more likely to embrace automation.
However, the companies best equipped to succeed in today’s economy are more likely to regard their employees as repositories of tremendous skills and talent, and continually given opportunities to solve new problems and create new opportunities for their employers, he added.
No turning back
A significant portion of hand-wringers, many of them over 50, do not share the younger generation’s growth mindset and would rather return to a time of stability, and this, rather than automation, is the greatest challenge facing them, Boles said.
“What we call a ‘job’ is an old construct that doesn’t necessarily make sense in a lot of work contexts,” he told ITBusiness.ca. “Because what we’re really talking about is a set of problems that need to be solved on an ongoing basis, which are more likely to be addressed in a fluid environment where people can dynamically bind around problems. They typically will have what I call a portfolio of work. Now that might mean a single employer is paying them to do the various projects that need to be done, but maybe not.”
That said, during Boles’ presentation – and his interview after – devil’s advocates noted that while around 40 per cent of U.S. residents have what are euphemistically known as “contingent” jobs, their work is usually precarious – a fact Boles cited himself – not to mention hazardous to mental health.
“That’s solvable,” he said. “The problem is that we’ve dialled down the value of labour significantly, at least in the United States – we tax labour at a higher rate than we tax capital – and have basically have gutted our unions. What is likely is that we’ll see more structures like guilds, with groups of freelancers banding together to solve problems, and that will help smooth out the variability of income.”
“You’ll also see larger employers realizing that what they need is several pools of workers available on an ongoing basis, so they’ll probably guarantee more work to help those workers smooth out their incomes as well.”