When surveying the current technology landscape, the state of affairs seems almost surreal. Growth, commerce, and innovation are moving at such unprecedented rates that even veteran IT professionals are left scratching their heads. Indeed, what was considered science fiction a few years ago is today’s reality or at least on the cusp of becoming so. Smartwatches, augmented reality glasses, virtual assistants that can understand speech, driverless cars, delivery drones, and retail robots that greet you at the front of the store are happening now, today, as we speak!
The tremendous burst of innovation is primarily a result of the convergence of mobile, cloud, collaboration, and Big Data in recent years. Instant access to data, phones that give you real-time information, brands that are customized to your needs . . . are all signs of a consumer driven era of innovation, which is fundamentally different than anything we’ve seen before. In an interview last February PBS NewsHour’s Making Sense talked to authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of “The Second Machine Age” about what is distinct about this latest wave of technological growth. Their response was as follows:
“We are at an inflection point. The first big inflection point in human history was about 200 years ago, when the steam engine started the industrial revolution. That was a period that saw a whole set of new machines come along that could automate muscle power, physical work. In recent years, we are seeing a wave of technologies that can augment, automate all sorts of cognitive tasks and we think, ultimately, those will have as big, or an even bigger effect on humanity as the first industrial revolution.”
Digital technologies are steadily redefining and reinventing our lives and economy, along with our very notions of work, progress, and prosperity. And society has welcomed this change with open arms because at a fundamental level we think of technology as adding to our overall well-being.
But there’s another side to the technology coin, which is potentially worrisome. We’ve heard a lot in the news recently about the rapid growth of artificial intelligence. One of the biggest buzz words right now are “smart machines.” Smart machines are systems trained to employ artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms that are able to make decisions and solve problems without human intervention, or that can “sense, predict, infer and, in some ways, think.” Examples of these systems are increasingly evident: contextually aware devices (smartphones that use information to influence computer behavior), intelligent personal assistants (think Google Now and Apple’s Siri), smart advisors (such as IBM Watson), advanced global industrial systems, and autonomous vehicles (driverless cars and Amazon’s proposed fleet of delivery drones called Prime Air).
All of this technology has transformed some of our basic assumptions about what computers can and cannot do. It’s like what Dorothy says to her pet dog in Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Likewise, many folks are starting to sense that we’ve begun to enter uncharted territory, and many are raising concerns about the impacts of this enormous technological progress on the future of jobs.
The number of articles appearing on this topic are becoming more frequent and the statistics being floated are rather staggering. One study suggests that nearly half of U.S. jobs may be automated in the next 20 years. This squares with the rate of change estimated by Garter. During its annual Symposium/Itxpo conference in Orlando at the beginning of October, Peter Sondergaard, SVP and Global Head of Research, made the following startling claim during his keynote:
“Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. New digital businesses require less labor; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can.”
What’s more, research shows that many CEOs are underestimating the systemic and deep impact that smart machines will have through 2020, as well as the potential for them to replace millions of middle-class jobs in the decades to come. Again, to quote Gartner: “the smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.” The view from Silicon Valley seems to be evenly split on the question, between the utopian “techno-optimists” who see job displacements consistently followed by job creations, and the dystopians who focus more on technology’s overriding impact on jobs and the economy.
Technology historically has been a major disruptor of jobs, even as it has created new opportunities in its wake. But there are certain signs to suggest that the rapid changes imposed by the digital era are faster, more impactful, and widespread than anything we’ve seen before . . . for all the reasons mentioned above and more.
In the years ahead business professionals will need to become more attuned than ever to the importance of keeping their jobs skills relevant and updated. This will require ongoing training and development in higher order skills such as coding, statistics, visualization, linguistics, information management, and Big Data. It will become increasingly incumbent for digital workers to pursue competencies and cognitive tasks that machines can’t touch.
In order to meet the innovation challenges of the digital age, business leaders will need to put in extra time understanding the impacts of ‘smart machines’ on their verticals and industries. Not only will they need to keep their skills updated and relevant, but they’ll need to be able to manage the increasingly sophisticated digital landscape even as mobile, cloud, Internet of Things, and collaboration technologies continue to push us in new directions around how we liv and work and think.
The best way for business leaders to prepare for the future is to stay up on current emerging and disruptive trends and be ready to quickly adapt as ubiquitous computing, automation, and ‘smart’ digital technologies continue to transform the workplace. Both within and outside of your organization, volunteer to become an early adopter of the latest tech and look for opportunities to beta-test as well. Get outside the office and examine how the customer expectations are changing. Make periodic assessments of your innovation best practices, recognize the latest tech trends throughout your industry, and do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the competition.