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Building the Future, One Job at a Time

In our recent book, What To Do When Machines Do Everything we argue that in 10 years’ time employment levels in the Western world will be higher than they are today. For some people that’s a head scratcher. In our analysis, Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t, as it’s popularly portrayed in the click-bait media, simply a job destroyer. AI is a new tool – a datascope perhaps – that allows us to see things in much finer-grain detail; a tool that allows us, as tools have always done, to perform tasks faster and better, and easier and cheaper. Most significantly though, for the continued ascent of humans, AI will enable us to do things that people have never been able to do before.

AI is set to revolutionize just about everything we can think of, in the way that previous generations of technology changed every aspect of the past. Think of the medical field, as one example. The microscope changed medicine. Imagine doctors not using microscopes today; in fact, you can’t. A doctor without modern medical tools would be out of business or spending all of their time in court fighting off lawsuits. Fast forward a click or two and it’s likely we won’t be able to imagine a check-up that doesn’t use AI tools to help diagnose diseases or map out treatments. Have medical tools put doctors out of business? No; rather, they have greatly expanded the scope of things they can do, and in turn greatly expanded the number of doctors there are in aggregate.

The real impact of AI and other new technologies is not to obliterate human labor but to change it.

However, this good news story masks a slightly more complicated nuance: that people are increasingly going to have to reshape their role and contribution (and earning ability) around existing work that machines still can’t do. And innovate new work that is beyond the capabilities of existing machine intelligence. For example:

  • In robotics-dominated warehouses and fulfillment centers, people are still needed to perform the “last inch” of manipulating a non-standard sized toy into a box or picking out a piece of rotten fruit from a grocery delivery.
  • At an algorithm-centric hedge fund, people are still needed to introduce “Black Swan” scenarios into trading models that a machine learning system could have no knowledge of.

This “around and beyond” approach will become the standard operating procedure in many businesses over the next few years.

There are three major implications that arise from these dynamics:

  • Darwin is (still) right – adaption is the route to evolution. In periods of profound “environmental” change, the species that mutate, survive. In short – don’t be a digital dodo …
  • It’s not intelligent to not want to be more intelligent. Machine intelligence is progressing in leaps and bounds. Human intelligence needs to keep up, and keep ahead. Lifelong education is now the pre-requisite for all of us.
  • Innovation is the primo resource of the 21st century. The great challenge and opportunity ahead of us isn’t to protect the work we have now, but to create better work. My job — and probably yours – is way better than my Dad’s. The real task is to scale our cool jobs from the tens, to the thousands, to the millions, to the tens of millions. Is that doable? Sure. And why not? That’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, non? If it isn’t, then heaven help us …

Adapting, learning, and innovating – using the new tools available to us – are the foundational building blocks for the future of all our work.

The Work Ahead

So how are we doing on this journey to the future? Well, the scorecard so far is somewhat mixed. Every day we see stories in the media of once great companies struggling to adapt to new market conditions; Sears and Conde Nast are two high profile names that have been under the klieg lights recently. The quality of K-12 education in the U.S. is widely perceived to be slipping while the cost of college is making it a luxury item, beyond the reach of the people who need it the most. Building the future remains a core strength of America (relative to other countries) but spreading and nurturing entrepreneurialism beyond the usual hotspots of Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York is a work in progress.

Perhaps of these three issues, educating ourselves to be future-primed is the most pressing. Preparing the current and future workforce for the future of work can’t be done using today’s decade-old training and education models. Traditional educational and career pathways aren’t designed to develop skills for a fast-changing market and can’t match the speed of changing industry requirements. Though many leaders in academic and corporate education fields are making advances in their processes of adaption, many aren’t. Without an evolution in how we educate and train the future workforce, many companies and higher education institutions are undermining their ability to be relevant in the future.

Cognizant is taking a series of steps to help our associates – and our future associates – acquire the skills they’ll need for the better work we’ll create. Investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based training facilities in a range of cities across America demonstrate our view that with the expansion of the digital economy, the need for STEM education and skills programs is greater than ever. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 1.4-million-person gap in the U.S. between software development jobs and qualified applicants to fill these positions by 2020. Relearning how we learn to fill those openings should be a major focus for everyone in every field; more thoughts on how to do that here.

The Jobs of the Future

But what exactly is this better work ahead? In recent times, it’s become something of a crutch for techno-optimists to say that “the jobs of the future – that will backfill the jobs automated away - haven’t been invented yet” but few people have been specific about what those jobs will be.

We’ve stepped into that vacuum with our reports, 21 Jobs of the Future and 21 More Jobs of the Future, which lay out some of the types of work we see emerging over the next 10 years. These new jobs range from the low-tech and semi-obvious – a Walker/Talker – to the very high-tech and hard to fathom – a Genetic Diversity Officer. Some are already observable in the marketplace (if you squint), while some are years away from coming to fruition. Some will propel a career for 60 years (the length of time most of us will soon be working), while others will be “gigs” that come and go. We’ve also recently launched the Cognizant Jobs of the Future Index that will track the emergence of this new work and give us a way of understanding quite how much of it is being created in our new algorithmic age and at what velocity.

The new jobs in our reports are emerging at a time when the commercial value of human skills is being radically, and at times brutally, reassessed. Some old skills are losing their power in the market today, while many new skills are the source of outsized advantage. But paradoxically, some old skills are now more important than ever – and not all new skills will have a long shelf life.

Many people find the nature of this reassessment exciting and energizing, but many clearly don’t. The fear and uncertainty that is abroad at the moment in mainstream and social media is a product of a world changing at an unprecedented speed. If you’ve made a living, raised a family, built an identity from being an autoworker or an accountant or a humanities professor, becoming an algorithm bias auditor – one of the new jobs in our reports - just seems plain wrong.

This is natural, this is understandable, but most importantly, this is a mistake. The world has always changed, and always will continue to change. The jobs we do have always changed, and always will continue to change.

Building the future is the great challenge of our time. Those who rise to it – who seize the opportunities of the future, and spread those opportunities as widely as possible – will be the leaders that our children and grandchildren learn about in the history books (perhaps history chip implants) in the decades to come.

Our underlying belief is that human imagination and ingenuity will be the source of human work ad infinitum. Of course, the work we do will be different in the future, but a world where all the work is done by machines is a recurring (wrong-headed) fantasy which resurfaces at moments of great technological change. Don’t get stuck in preserving the past. Instead, adapt, learn, and innovate – and a better future awaits.

Public Policy Tags: Artificial Intelligence, Workforce