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What does Automation mean for THE future of work and learning?

Meta-category 1: Automation > Technologies that directly replace human effort and activities.

By Jona Nalder with Rhys Cassidy

The very idea that a human being’s worth was measured almost exclusively by his or her productive output of goods and services and material wealth will seem primitive, even barbaric, and be regarded as a terrible loss of human value to our progeny living in a highly automated world.” — Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society

A post-work world made possible by automation as Rifkin is envisioning here may still be a long way off in the context of recent news story headlines like ‘I’m a GP- will a robot take my job?’ (1), and ‘Japanese AI Writes a Novel’, Nearly Wins Literary Award’ (2). As alarmist as these sound, real world developments like Google’s AI beating a champion human 4–1 (3), and driverless cars being deployed for real-world trials (4) show that this is a very real and present issue. How examples like these will lead to a post-work and post-wealth future is yet to be seen. What is important is that the transition stage is here, and a bigger-picture way of adapting to it is required.

Future-U is working to develop this bigger-picture view in its frameworks by grouping of a range of developments into ‘meta-categories’ rather than trying to explain each one in isolation; an approach we simply don’t have time for anymore. For Automation this means that in addition to AI and driver-less cars, there are a wide array of technologies such as conversation bots, Machine Learning, blockchain, the internet of things and artificial assistants that are linked to the bigger concept of ‘Automation’. All of these can be said to be technologies which are impacting society and work by replacing human activities and effort rather than just helping or ‘augmenting’ them. In fact it is this potential to replace not just assist that can be seen as a defining characteristic of the move beyond the 3rd industrial revolution (initiated by the microchip and digital tech) into the 4th: The information age.

One of the most far-reaching examples of Automation is the development of stores without human cashiers or sales staff. Initially this has meant supermarkets with customer-operated checkouts — but initiatives such as the Amazon Go store (5) have the capability to be run purely by interactions between apps, software and sensors. Where this gets interesting is when such developments are considered in the broader context of nations like Australia where retail jobs make up the highest single category of workers (6). Such nations may be able to navigate through one transition where large numbers of human workers are replaced. However, if the framework and mindset that decision-makers are using fails to include the full picture of Automation technologies, it may be the second of these two options proposed by Stephen Hawking that comes to pass.

Everyone can enjoy a life of leisure if the machine-produced [robots] wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution” — Stephen Hawking

So, now that we have a meta-category to understand this particular aspect of the transition we are living through, we can perhaps proactively ask how it can be managed to benefit everyone. Merely reacting to individual developments one at at time using methods that worked in previous eras is not something future workers will thank us for — let’s start thinking how to use Automation to everyone’s advantage now.








Intro to FUTURE-U: The ‘Overview Effect’

Future-U manifesto part1

Going into space is something that humans have dreamt of and written about for centuries. And, thanks to factors like engineering ingenuity and the way newly miniaturised transistors could help calculate the required orbital mechanics, this dream was finally achieved by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Since Gagarin, programs like Apollo, Mir, Space Shuttles, the International Space Station and Tiangong have seen 0.000076% of people alive leave Earth. These approx. 550 women and men have been formally studied for changes that their time in space have caused such as the effect of low gravity on muscles and bone density — but one of the most fascinating impacts of being in orbit has been how it changes astronauts mindsets and world-views. This phenomenon, dubbed the ‘Overview Effect’ by Frank White in 1985, refers to the effect that viewing our planet and sole home from the distance of orbit has had on those who have witnessed it. View the official documentary here.

More recently, Astronaut Chris Hadfield, author of ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ and poster of this prolific series of Twitter images from space has added to the reports of previous generations:

“We live on this little bit of cooled crust, and this little sliver of air, and we think it’s guaranteed. We think we’re invincible right, and we think the whole universe is here to serve us. And we’re like bacteria in a corner, just found a little niche that’ll support our life” — Chris Hadfield, 2013, JRE.

So, if we were looking down at our pale blue dot home right now, what would we see? It’s probable that with just such a big-picture perspective, we would see a planet undergoing massive transitions in technology, work, and society, the effects of which are showing in increased social and political instability particularly as many jobs that have been mainstays since the previous Industrial revolution of the 1800’s begin to disappear. The technologies involved in this transition are many, but the majority can be roughly organised into three meta or overall categories of Automation, Augmentation and Expansion. These categories will be covered in detail in ‘Intro to FUTURE-U’ parts 2–5, but overall refer to:

Automation: A.I., bots, Machine Learning, driverless cars, internet of things, robotics. Augmentation: VR, AR, mixed reality, tele-work & play, exo-skeletons, bio-tech, genome-editing, implants. Expansion: low-cost renewable energy, reduction of Earth-limits, Space mining and factories, off-earth living.

Many across the globe are of course aware of these developments and their effects and symptoms, but are not putting all the pieces together in an ‘Overview Effect’ -enough of a way that could allows us to think beyond today to plan for a successful future where soon many humans may be seeing Earth not just from near-space, but from Mars and beyond.

QUESTION: If we were mission control and could build an organisation to lead the next phase of work and education into a thriving future, what would it look like? is designed to answer just this question. Look out for more articles laying out the what, how and why in coming weeks.