Since the dawn of time, humans have developed tools and technology to assist in the pursuit of our goals. Large shifts in technology have resulted in large shifts in social structures, and how individuals both contribute to society and make a living. The Industrial Revolution, for example, brought large-scale changes to our socio-economic structures and the kinds of work people did.
Today, technological advances are rapidly making it possible to automate much of the work currently carried out by humans. This applies to both blue-collar jobs, through robotics and the Internet of Things, and white-collar work, through artificial intelligence. The wide applicability of these technologies has led to broad concern about the destruction of jobs. Indeed, according to a 2014 Oxford study, 47% of jobs in the US could be replaced by automated processes in the next two decades.
Of course, as many have noted, while technology has always removed the need for some types of jobs, it also creates new ones. Technology is a set of tools that we use in different ways to increase efficiency. The Industrial Revolution destroyed some jobs but created many more. It also increased the aggregate wealth of society and began to create a middle class who could enjoy health, education and other benefits that previously had been available only to the wealthiest. It can be challenging to predict the kinds of jobs that this new revolution will create and in what quantities, which makes the situation seem worse than it actually is. But nine of the top ten most in-demand jobs of 2012 did not exist in 2003, suggesting that this latest revolution is creating new employment opportunities.
For many, this picture is overly optimistic. The new jobs require a completely different skills set – you can’t turn an assembly plant worker into a data scientist overnight, if at all. The Industrial Revolution played out of several decades and yet still caused massive social upheaval, unrest and widespread deprivation for many. The digital revolution may happen much faster, across large areas of a complex, interconnected economy that has very tight in-built feedback loops.
Others are concerned that this time is different and that we are facing a permanent reduction in the need for human labour. While many initially viewed this as economically naïve, some experts – including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers – are now not so sure. Science fiction has long imagined a future where we no longer have to work and can spend our time on more noble pursuits. Could it be that we are reaching that inflection point in human history?
If we are, neither our social norms nor our economic systems are ready for it. Today, self-worth is inherently tied up with jobs, professions, careers and trades. And in a global economy based on neoclassical models of capitalism, mass unemployment spells depression, not utopia.
On the question of jobs, William Gibson’s famous aphorism may hold true: “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.” Certainly, some of these concerns can seem academic or blinkered from the context of a developing country looking to develop key industries and provide employment for its people. At the other extreme, we can already see post-industrial pockets in different advanced economies, from Detroit to Japan. A recent Atlantic article explored the possible futures that may play out in a world without work. It painted a mixed picture: on the one hand, we might have the time and freedom to explore our creativity and passions; on the other, we might be heading for a “gig economy” where smaller parcels of work replace the security of full-time jobs.
The extent to which we replace or transform jobs, or the extent to which this is a transitional shift or a permanent change, is not predefined. We have a choice over how we want to use technology, over which path we take and over which scenario emerges. Perhaps the question is not a theoretical one, nor an empirical one, but one of intent and principle: what kind of society do we want to have?
Have you read?
How do you create jobs in a low-growth world?
How automation will change the way we live and work
What can nanotech do for job creation?
Author: Derek O’Halloran, Head of Information Technology and Electronics Industries, World Economic Forum
Image: Umbrellas are held by robots produced by KUKA Robot Group, at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover March 14, 2015. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen
Derek O'Halloran, Head of Digital Economy and Society System Initiative, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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To help us better imagine what the future holds, Thomson Reuters' Intellectual Property & Science division compiled a report of the 10 innovations they believe will take place by 2025. They looked through research databases to find the top patent fields with the most inventions containing a priority date of 2012 or later.
These are the 10 innovations Thomson Reuters anticipates will become a reality by 2025:
Dementia will decline.
Thanks to a better understanding of the human genome and genetic mutations, doctors and scientists will be better able to detect and prevent diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's disease. By identifying problematic DNA, scientists will be able to produce actual technology to fight the biological decline of one's mental capacity.
Solar will be the biggest source of energy.
By 2025, methods for harvesting, storing, and converting solar energy will be advanced enough to make it the primary source of energy on our planet. Something called solar photovoltaic energy will use solar panels to heat buildings and water while powering devices at home and in the office.
Type I Diabetes will be preventable.
A human genome engineering platform will make it possible to modify disease-carrying genes and prevent conditions like Type I Diabetes. Doctors and scientists will be able to modify the RNA and DNA sequences that pass on the disease.
Food shortages and food price fluctuations will no longer be a problem.
Lighting and imaging technologies will improve crop growth year round and combat the problems of traditional farming. We will also be able to grow genetically-modified crops indoors. That means that disease and environmental factors will be less of an issue for crops, and the food we buy at grocery stores will be more consistently priced and available.
Electric transportation will be huge.
Tesla is already making a splash, but by 2025 electric vehicles will take over traditional vehicles. Their battery will be able to last longer, so you will be able to travel longer distances more easily. And airplanes will adopt the technology too, which will totally change the way we travel.
Everything will be digitally connected.
Wireless communications will dominate our everyday lives by 2025. Cars, homes, and appliances will be connected, and this will be the case around the world in every location. New technology will be able to store energy and serve as electrodes to deliver this hyper-connectivity.
Biodegradable packing will be the norm.
Packaging will be made of cellulose materials that are plastic-like but actually made of plant matter so it's biodegradable and better for the environment than the plastic bags we currently use at grocery stores.
There will be safer, healthier drugs to fight cancer.
The toxic chemicals currently used to treat cancer can have harmful and debilitating side effects on patients, but by 2025, cancer-fighting drugs will be more precise and exact, leading to reduced side effects. More targeted drugs can bind to specific proteins and antibodies to cause a very specific action, and paired with advanced knowledge of gene mutations, this will lead to better treatments for cancer.
We will create DNA maps at birth to manage disease risk.
DNA mapping will be the norm thanks to advancements in single-cell analysis, nanotechnology, and Big Data technology. This could theoretically replace blood tests as a more accurate way of detecting diseases.
Teleportation will be tested.
Recent research related to the Higgs Boson particle, also known as the "God particle," will help forward actual experimentation with teleporting. The idea is that turning off the Higgs Boson particle could let you travel at the speed of light and essentially teleport. It will only be at the beginning of testing, but there is a good chance there will be significant investing in testing teleportation.