Reinventing Society With Intelligent Automation
February 2, 2021 at 12:00:00 AM
The idea of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” was coined in 2016 by Klaus Schwab, executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum. The first revolution brought the steam engine, the second mass production and the third digital technology. Each of these brought along massive disruptions and fundamentally transformed our modern societies. We are now entering into the fourth industrial revolution, brought along by connected and intelligent technologies, of which intelligent automation (IA) is a central component.
In this article, I discuss five critical imperatives that will ensure the success of our society's journey with IA in this fourth industrial revolution. These imperatives will be: evolving skills, sharing the wealth, rethinking work, reinventing education and, finally, building a potential new society. Understanding and following these is essential to ensure that our societies don’t get caught off guard by a change that could happen too fast, which could have devastating consequences for the workforce and governments alike.
1. Evolving Skills
As I recently mentioned in an interview with AI Magazine, "First, education needs to be adapted to fit the skills expected in the future. It has to focus on people's competitive edge; that is, on tasks that machines will never be able to do well."
Machines can build knowledge and acquire skills through a learning process. However, only humans can generate real insight, one that involves gaining an intuitive understanding of something. Hence, I believe that the workforce needs to transition from “knowledge workers” to “insight workers.” To support this, I believe that creativity, adaptability and “learning to learn” will be the most important skills to acquire in the future.
Our education systems need to support this shift. We can take reference from the past, where education programs such as the “High School Movement” helped the U.S. become the first economy in the world. Singapore and South Korea are both actively retraining their workforces to move on from automatable jobs to roles that require new skills or expertise that are underrepresented in today’s job market.
2. Sharing The Wealth
IA enables economies to produce more with fewer resources, and one danger is that the productivity gains will not be evenly shared. Robert Solow, an American economist, described how wage inequality increased with technology advancement, favoring skilled over unskilled labor. Following this idea, inequality will continuously increase in the future. As IA is likely to require fewer but more qualified employees, a grim result of these developments is that the middle class, which is essential for a stable society, could be disappearing.
Some economists consider a universal basic income (UBI) as a potential means by which sharing the wealth created by rapid productivity gains can be achieved. UBI refers to programs that provide people with a regular income, regardless of their employment status or wealth.
3. Rethinking 'Work'
According to a recent Gallup study, 85% of employees worldwide do not feel engaged with their work. This indicates that work as we experience it today — for most of us, the 9-to-5 rat race — does not seem to be part of our human nature. According to Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, in the near future, we should not have to work more than three days a week, four hours a day. This model would be a direct consequence of productivity gains that will be brought by IA within the next decades.
With the support of wealth-sharing mechanisms like UBI, this could be a call to redefine work for the future. The new definition of "work" could provide us more time to evolve toward more purposeful occupations like taking care of others and our planet, focusing on what energizes us and creating new forms of leisure.
4. Reinventing Education
Author and TED speaker Ken Robinson once said, "Our educational systems don't enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization." Furthermore, 75% of people today think they are not living up to their creative potential.
Schools should evolve away from preparing for career-oriented gainful employment. Going back to its Greek origins, the word school means "leisure" or "rest." We could leverage this definition to refocus education on thoughtful reflection — a discussion that supports people answering the most critical question of their lives: "How should I best enjoy my life?"
5. Building A New Society
By using the four first imperatives as a foundation, the fifth imperative is to consider building a new, more human society — a potential society freed from what we call "work" today, embracing a new culture that's focused on humanity, values and is respectful of the environment. I believe our societies will need to redefine themselves in order to incorporate work in a way that allows our lives to be calmer, more equal, more communal, more thoughtful and, ultimately, more fulfilled. To succeed, the role of government is vital in planning and redefining societies that will be able to integrate this new reality. Failing to do so would most likely be setting the stage for unrest at an unprecedented scale.
The impact of IA goes far beyond the context of businesses, as it also impacts people’s lives. The five imperatives that I have presented could serve as “IA laws” that any organization, society or government could follow. IA can help us move from a work-focused culture to a culture focused on humanity and values. It gives us the time to take care of others, preserve our planet, focus on our passions and leverage our creativity. IA could make our world more human by enabling us to refocus on what makes us truly human.