“The future is not preordained by machines. It’s created by humans.” These are the words of Erik Brynjolfsson, director at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the continuing automation and digitization of our world and our workplace is a seismic shift. This session discusses in what ways jobs and our relationship with work may continue to change in the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Predicting the Future

The session begins with the host, Saadia Zahidi, the Head of Education, Gender and Work at the World Economic Forum, citing predictions that in the future up to 47% of jobs may be automated away, while other predictions are more cautious, suggesting a figure of only 9%.

Responding to these predictions, Erik Brynjolfsson describes how the future may be shaped.

For Brynjolfsson, the future, and even the present is bright with possibility. “The machine learning revolution has really kicked in”, he says, describing how, for the first time, machines can now see better than humans can, read street signs, and even diagnose cancer. Brynjolfsson sees real potential in the continuing development of cognitive computing technologies, such as deep learning and deep neural networks.

Brynjolfsson predicts that this digital dawning of computer intelligence will bring better healthcare, and create billions of dollars in the value of industries utilising the new technologies, potentially even trillions.

Still, not all of his predictions are so universally positive. Commenting on the potential for job losses he is frank. “The reality is that there is no economic law that states that everyone will benefit from an industrial revolution,” he says. “It is possible for a majority to be left behind."

Suzanne Fortier, who is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at McGill University in Canada, agrees. “I think we are reading our radar correct,” she says. “I think we are going to see many jobs disappear.”

He goes on, explaining that similar events occurred at the beginning of, and during previous industrial revolutions. “When demand falls for any input: horse, human, we see prices fall, and wages.”

He warns that the problems of the developed world may be small compared to those experienced by developing nations. He explains how currently many nations are successful precisely because of the low cost of labour in their factories, but is clear that this state of affairs cannot last forever. “No matter how low their wages are they’ll never be able to compete with the next generation of robots,” he tells the panel.

Despite all this, Brynjolfsson remains optimistic.

He admits though that this utopian future will not arrive without work on all sides. “There is so much more work that needs to be done, there are enormous problems in healthcare, education, environment.” He tells the panel that people need to look further ahead, suggesting that society is currently short-sighted with regards to the possibilities, what he calls a “technological presbyopia.”. “We can use human machine partnerships to take on problems we’ve never been able to solve before.”

He makes it clear though that, whatever may happen, it is our choice.

“I disagree with the optimists, and with the pessimists, because they both believe something will happen to us,” he explains. “I believe that we get to decide.”

Brynjolfsson and Fortier agree that part of that decision has to be an active choice to ensure that the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are inclusive, and shared by all.

Futureproofing

The conversation moves on from what may happen in the future, to how we should prepare for it. For both Brynjolfsson and Fortier it is about ensuring young people have the correct skills to prosper whatever may come.

Fortier admits that is is a far from easy task, however. “We are very good at predicting three, four, five years ahead,” she says, “this is long term… It’s about preparing them for a future we can’t even predict yet.”

Like Brynjolfsson though, Fortier remains optimistic. “I really think our students are making these changes in their learning,” she explains, talking about how they incorporate themselves in their communities and actively seek mentorship from older generations. “They’re bright enough to realise they’ve got a lot to learn,” she says.

Thriving in a world of machines

Asked what curriculum he would recommend to a teenager preparing for the coming revolution Brynjolfsson set out a three point plan. “You want to do things machines can’t do well,” he says. “You want to be working with them, not competing with them.”

To that end he recommended an investment in the creativity of the young, especially important as he believes many schools to be actively stamping it out.

The second category he recommends is that of interpersonal skills, teamwork and leadership. “It doesn’t help to have a robot give you a pep talk,” he says. “People may not have degrees, but they can have high emotional intelligence.”

Lastly he encourages people to follow their passions. “The people who do well do so because they are the best in something,” he explained, saying that their love gives them that extra drive to excel, and it is this that will be most important in the digital age.