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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.








We need a new big-picture way to understand technology’s accelerating complexity


We need a new big-picture way to understand technology’s accelerating complexity

Future-U manifesto part2

"We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments” — Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, 2016

Is this view of the impact that technology is having a new one? Far from it. From immediately after the introduction of the microchip in 1960’s and the beginning of what has been labelled the third industrial revolution, with the first being ushered in by steam power and the second by electricity, there have been those who understood that it was reshaping society. But here we are nearly 50 years later, and despite it being well known that “Digital is the main reason over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 disappeared since the year 2000” (Pierre Nanterme, CEO Accenture), the comprehensive view that Schwab is calling for has not appeared.

This can be seen as a major problem for those working to encourage positive adaption rather than reactionary approaches to the current massive transition. For Future-U however, the lack of such a shared understanding of where technology is going is not a problem but an opportunity that has led founder Jona Nalder to distill his 12 years working with technology and learners into creating a big-picture view that can summarise and articulate the amazingly complex and diverse concepts involved so that necessary conversations can begin.

While the technologies involved in the current transition are many, the Future-U framework organises the majority into three meta or overall categories of Automation, Augmentation and Expansion. Each of these will be detailed further in parts 3–5, but can be summarised as:

Automation: A.I., bots, Machine Learning, driverless cars, blockchain, internet of things, robotics
Augmentation: VR, AR, mixed reality, tele-work & play, exo-skeletons, bio-tech, genome-editing, implants
 Expansion: low-cost renewable energy, free high speed wifi, space mining and production, off-earth living

No schema could ever encompass all the developments and directions technology is taking. For instance, previous efforts have often grouped technology purely by its functions. This framework instead seeks to create meta-categories based on the ways in which technology is impacting society and work. In this way, disparate elements such as Virtual Reality or Bio-tech which are normally discussed separately can instead be understood in terms of their direct augmentation, but not replacement, of humans’ abilities to work, think and learn.

In the same way, the other meta-categories are also designed to bend and further our understanding, not of the million different directions technology seems to be taking us, but of how technology can be understood and acted upon together. And that is a big part of what Future-U is being created to do. If this makes sense, please share this message, get in touch, and look forward to part three.