We are entering a new era of innovation. The pace of change is accelerating. More fundamental human problems will be solved in the next two decades than have been solved in the last two centuries.
This may terrify some and energize others. Whatever your view, technology already powers nearly everything we do. Just think about how much of your average day is already fuelled by tech. This ubiquity means that we can no longer think of innovation in terms of discrete, vertical technology silos such as television, audio, automotive and smartphones.
People I call “ninja innovators” are constantly evaluating the opportunities these developments are offering and are poised to take advantage of them. The future will belong to them. In the future – the ninja future – innovation will disrupt the way we work to an even greater extent. Ninjas will seize the moment and capitalize on this disruption.
Let’s face it: disrupt is an unsettling word. It connotes rupture, interruption, disorder. But it is also a transitive verb, one that exerts its action on a specific object - in this case, our personal lives and our global economy. It connotes movement - a shift and transfer of energy from one direction to another. This will not be an abysmal narrative of computer systems replacing large swathes of the global workforce. It also will not be a simple narrative of workers gaining a handy digital coworker to make their job easier and more efficient. The large-scale impact of technology on the workforce will be more nuanced.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated in 2016 that 32% of jobs will be different in the near future than they are today due to technology. Healthcare is one obvious example. Jobs in the medical field will abound, but professionals will increasingly be aided by advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), including machine learning. We may become increasingly comfortable ceding some diagnostic and analytical duties to proven AI systems, but ninja innovation, at least in the next two decades, will assist doctors, not supplant them.
The economic potential of AI is enormous. A 2017 PwC study forecasts that AI will add more than $15 trillion to the world economy in 2030. None of us can predict how many jobs AI will create as new interfaces and industries emerge. The shift won’t be uniform: some sectors of our economy will experience the AI revolution long before others. We need to be realistic about the extent to which technology will alter the workplace. We need to get serious about making sure that today’s students - future ninjas among them - are adequately prepared for tomorrow’s workforce.
Consumer Technology Association (CTA) research shows that lack of public trust is one of the main barriers to development and implementation of AI. In the age of connectivity, big data and AI, the world is asking an existential question about the role that people will play in their own future. To me, it’s crystal clear. Humans can and will dictate the terms by which technological innovations complement our work and play. Like all technology, it's up to us to ensure that AI can act both as capably and as ethically as we train it to. If we hold ourselves accountable to standards of fairness and excellence, these will play out in the AI solutions we develop.
Another part of the suspicion of future ninja innovation comes from a lack of understanding of what these changes mean for workers. There’s no denying that AI will disrupt industries, but the extent to which it will eliminate jobs has been somewhat exaggerated in the media. Understandably, when statistics about potential job loss due to automation make headlines, the public may be more resistant to reading the fine print about how technology is also changing the nature of existing jobs. So in 2018, CTA created a 21st Century Workforce Council - a forum for industry to address the skills gap in the US and ensure the tech sector has the necessary pipeline of ninjas for the millions of jobs we are creating, from data analysts to programmers, robotics experts and more.
When CTA surveyed tech executives on their labour needs in 2018 and in the future, 92% said they expected they would need more employees with technical skills in the next five years. And 74% said it was a challenge to find candidates with the right skills and abilities. American companies face a major skills shortage for AI engineers and other highly technical roles, yet most American students are not pursuing advanced degrees in these fields. American students earn fewer than half of the US doctoral degrees in many STEM fields.
Increasing the number of STEM graduates in the US is important to the success of our economy, but future ninjas don’t necessarily need a graduate degree. (Indeed, for all the concern about the impact of self-driving trucks on the trucking industry, from 2016 through 2018 we have faced a huge deficit of drivers willing to take on these jobs.) Companies including Microsoft, Apple and IBM are partnering with community colleges to develop curricula that match students’ education with skills shortages in the tech workforce. Innovative models such as these will help close the skills gap and make tech-based careers more accessible to a broader range of Americans.
Future ninjas will need technical skills, but more importantly, they will need to refresh their skills routinely to stay ahead of rapidly evolving technology. This necessitates a fundamental change in mindset that starts with our education system. We are investing an extraordinary amount of brainpower in developing technologies that will change the way we work, and ultimately make the world safer, more efficient and more enjoyable. We need to invest some of that brainpower in modernizing our education system so that students are prepared for these new tech jobs.
We should expose more children to robotics and coding at early ages, thereby ensuring that they develop a base level of familiarity and interest in these critical and lucrative fields. And since we know that individuals learn differently, we should set aside our “one-size-fits-all” education model. Some of us are visual learners, others are aural learners. Some need interaction, others can learn just fine without a human. Some blossom in group settings, others shrink. Technology can create different education experiences for different students, and we should take advantage of ninja innovation in the classroom to customize learning. We should also look outside the classroom to apprenticeships, as IBM is doing, to ensure alignment between industry needs and skills training.
AI, smart cities, drones and other technologies will create new categories of jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago. Cultivating and nourishing future ninjas is our paramount goal. It’s an ambitious one, but that’s what ninja innovators do. If we can develop artificial intelligence, we can certainly rise to the challenge of preparing our workforce for the consequences and opportunities of ninja innovation.
Adapted from the book NINJA FUTURE: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation by Gary Shapiro. Copyright © 2019 by Gary Shapiro. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.