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Choosing a Human Path to the Future

By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
What future roles can we envisage for people in an automated world and what might the implications be for human-to-human relations?
Reframing Humanity’s Place in a Technological World

As we look at the changes shaping our world and the pace of technological advancement, some very big questions start to arise:

  • Are humans irrelevant to the future of business?
  • What role should humans play when machines can outperform them in most tasks?
  • How should society prepare for an unknowable future?

There are five important dimensions that we must address as part of securing humanity’s future in an automated world and ensuring that the advances in technology are used to serve humanity—not replace it.

Reframing Society—We are reaching a truly dramatic point in human history where a number of exponential technologies are being combined to deliver radical performance improvements. A powerful mix of unleashed imaginations applied to disruptive technologies is catalyzing a possibility revolution across every aspect of human life, society, government, and business. As a result, in the next few years, society will be challenged to confront fundamental issues that go to the core of what it means to be human. Advances in science and technology will test every assumption we have about how our world works and the purpose of humans within it. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) already outperforms humans in many domains, and the possibility of artificial superintelligence, or constantly learning and evolving systems, could result in machines capable of overtaking human capabilities—ultimately even in so-called soft skills such as empathy, intuition, and creativity.

Humanity 2.0—Advances in cognitive enhancement drugs and “nootropic” supplements, electronic brain stimulation techniques, genetics, age extension treatments, 3D printed limbs and organs, and body worn exoskeletons, have given rise to the notion of enhancing the human brain and body well beyond the limits of natural evolutionary processes. Indeed, many leaders in the field of AI are fierce advocates of “Transhumanism” as the next stage of human evolution—arguing that if humans want to keep up with AI, we ourselves will have to become machines—embedding technology in our brains and bodies to give us similar levels of processing power. So, is there a meaningful future for version 1.0 humans in this brave new and enhanced world that the technoprogressives would have us believe is the only viable way forward for humanity?

The Risks of Automation—The challenge here lies in our choices as decision makers and the value we place on human attributes that machines cannot as yet replicate. Clearly, automation has many benefits such as cost efficiency, consistency, speed, and accuracy. Many firms will inevitably choose to place their faith in computer systems, automating wherever possible. Such a philosophy is common in new technology ventures where the heart of the business is embedded in its code. Some are already creating Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO)—entities that have no employees and exist entirely in software. The potential rewards of widespread digitization of an enterprise are well-covered in the business media, but what isn’t talked about enough is the spectrum of risks presented by automation, especially to well-established organizations. Companies run the risk of dehumanizing and becoming identical to others in their industry—losing whatever their distinctive edge might be and commoditizing themselves in the process. Furthermore, the more we choose to embed all that we do in software, the easier it becomes for competitors to replicate our offering and go a step further at a slightly lower price—locking us into a deadly race to the bottom on prices, revenues, and profitability.

What Differentiates Humans from Machines?—The challenge is to harness AI and other disruptive technologies such as robotics, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, and hyperconnectivity as power tools to support and unleash human potential. At least for some time to come, what differentiates a company will be very human characteristics—the quality of its ideas, strategies, and business models; its community relations; the ability to spot and exploit opportunities or address risks quickly; handling exceptional customer needs; creating new products and services; building deep connections within and outside the organization; how it navigates external developments such as regulatory requirements; and how well it manages change. These remain very human traits which machines cannot yet replicate. New technologies can play a powerful role in supporting the people performing these tasks and automating more routine work to free up time for us to undertake these higher-level human functions. Organizations that see AI as simply a way to cut back on staffing are missing the point.

Unleashing Human Potential—Artificial intelligence is increasing business productivity, knowledge, and efficiency, but humans cannot be written off just yet. In the insurance industry, while chatbots are emerging at the customer interface, there is a concern that AI is not yet at the point where machines can respond appropriately to distressed customers, an unfortunately common emotional state due to the nature of matters insurance companies deal with. Artificial intelligence offers a chance to re-humanize the workforce by providing more time to use our talents and softer skills and emotional intelligence while offloading less sensitive tasks to machines. Obviously, we will need training and support to help us step into these intellectually and emotionally more demanding roles.

Tomorrow’s Opportunities

As individuals, managers, leaders, investors, and politicians we crave certainty and predictability. We want the future served up to us on a plate with the timelines, impacts, and solutions clearly defined. Reality is far messier and changes constantly—the only certainties are that: i) ignoring the emerging future will store up problems; and ii) trying to apply yesterday’s or today’s solutions to the future’s challenges will almost certainly fail. What we do know is that the situation will evolve rapidly as the pace of technology quickens, and as businesses seek to act faster to take advantage of what’s on offer and respond to potential competitive threats. A wide range of professions from sales person and school teacher to investment banker, risk assessor, claims analyst, plumber, and bus driver will see technology emerge that can enhance or even replace their roles.

Within five years, it is reasonable to foresee quite significant shifts in the types of jobs available, the skills levels required, and a shortening duration for those roles. On a ten-year time frame, we could reasonably expect to see widespread automation, a dramatic reduction of the jobs that exist today, new roles emerging in new firms and in existing businesses as they seek to stay competitive, and educationally, a degree or its equivalent could become a minimum entry requirement for 80% or more of all new jobs created.

Navigating the Messy Middle

So, what about the messy middle between here and the end of the next decade? In the short term, the picture will be confused—certain firms and industries will accelerate rapidly toward an “employee light” model. Other sectors will see temporary skills shortages until the processes become more automated and the machines learn to code themselves. In professions ranging from machine learning specialists to quantity surveyors, we can see a near-term skills shortage with supply lagging demand. This represents an immediate opportunity to retrain people for these in-demand roles.

However, as the process of automation accelerates and the way we work evolves over the next 5-10 years, we might see skill shortages erode and the emergence of very different ways of achieving an outcome. For example, an autonomous vehicle might automatically fine its driver should they choose to take the wheel while drunk or override the speed limit. The vehicle might also self-insure—sharing the risk across the pool of autonomous cars on the road. These smart cars might also drive themselves to the shop for repairs—carried out by a team of robots and drones. These changes wouldn’t so much re-engineer the work of solicitors, courtrooms, garages, and insurance firms—rather the activities, associated tasks, and related jobs might be eliminated completely.

The Emergence of New Jobs

Over time, new jobs will arise with the emergence of new activities, businesses, and sectors. For example, human augmentation will require a range of new skills, possibly combined into hybrid roles that draw on chemistry, biology, electro-mechanical engineering, psychology, and counseling. Highly trained workers will also be required in sectors such as smart materials, 3D/4D printing, autonomous car manufacture, superfast construction, environmental protection and remediation, renewable energy, and care of the elderly. In insurance, the skills of the next generation risk assessor will need to encompass a wider range of disciplines to handle the new fields of science and technology coming to market.

At a more fundamental level, we could see a rise in teacher numbers if countries see education as a priority. In parallel, the opportunities in basic and applied R&D could blossom if nations and firms increase their research investments in search of future growth. We could also see a massive growth in small businesses and mentoring roles as people seek to take control of their own destiny. Increased leisure time could drive a resurgence of opportunities in the creative arts, with an expansion of training provision for would-be actors, dancers, painters, and poets. Finally, the stress associated with job displacement due to technology could result in a growing need both for mental health support for people while still in the job and for care in the community for those with mental health issues resulting from the loss of their job.

Redefining Jobs

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that there could be many new definitions of the term “job” in the next 5-20 years. A job today is still a fundamental assumption and organizing principle in most Western nations—even if it is being eroded, governments still plan on that basis. A job today is a means to earn money by achieving a set of given tasks. For some it is more—a calling to fulfill one’s purpose and give meaning and structure to our lives. For others, it is a means to an end—be that paying for our next meal or providing the money to realize our materialistic, experiential, or spiritual desires.

So, as work is gradually and then more rapidly automated away, what becomes of the job? What might a job look like in 2027? Will it still be a “production” role delivering measurable daily outputs, or will a job imply a more creative human activity? Will it still be what people do all day? Conceivably, AI could remove aspects of jobs that tend to be considered “work” while emphasizing the parts of a job that make it a social and enriching activity. Will we have moved to a guaranteed or universal basic income (UBI), with people having the choice over where they spend their time, from being a server in a restaurant to taking part in community building restoration projects? The link between how we spend our time and the income we receive might be broken in less than a decade, meaning people could have more autonomy over how they use their time and energy than ever before.

The technology we adopt today will also allow companies to increase their options in terms of achieving outcomes. While Company A might use AI to reduce the size and budget of their legal department, they might in turn boost their investment in the IT and HR departments to ensure they have the right technological capacities and that the attorneys and others they hire are absolutely the right fit. Company B might implement AI to reduce the number of customer service calls routed to human operators, but they could re-invest the salary savings on bringing in trainers and facilitators to raise digital literacy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking ability, and communication skills across the firm. New training curricula would require new positions to run the programs, e.g. “Director of Lifelong Learning.” In this case, a job might be more akin to an education: you would leave it smarter and better-prepared than when you arrived.

Time for Extraordinary Leadership

Aside from jobs, bringing AI into the workplace successfully will require new workplace leadership styles. The leaders of AI-powered organizations will face unprecedented challenges which will test their people skills and emotional intelligence. “Warm” and highly relatable individuals might be in demand to offset the extent of “cold” automation within an organization. Of course, this won’t be universally true—for some, the ultimate goal is to create the DAO, and for them the pursuit of automation and a workforce led by “robot overlords” is just a stepping stone to the employee-free business of the future. However, at present, humanity seems to be prevailing to some degree, and total digitization seems unlikely to become a genuine threat for the majority of larger global businesses in the near term.

Indeed, in a world where there’s a risk of automation, dehumanization, and commoditization proceeding hand in hand, those who put people first could find themselves better positioned to create, innovate, adapt, evolve, stand out, and outperform the market. Hence, leaders could become more important than ever, raising their own digital literacy, investing heavily in people development, and demonstrating the kind of extraordinary leadership required in an ever-evolving landscape. In many ways, the real opportunity is being ready to stand up for the longer term with this investment in people, going against a strong near-term focused, pro-AI trend that prioritizes immediate profits over humanity and future business sustainability.

The emphasis on machines, processes, and structures plays into, and perhaps emanates from, the dominant masculine culture in many firms. In contrast, the pursuit of a unique, distinctive, people-centered brand and culture means there could be a greater need for leading from the feminine, with an emphasis on traits such as empathy, social awareness, sensitivity, and collaborative working. Feminine might be just one word for it, but ultimately it is a perspective that puts people, relationships, and the long-term above efficiency and short-term cost savings.

New Professions and Ethical Frameworks

The technologies coming through will also enable and require new professions. For example, as driverless vehicles get closer to becoming a market reality, we may see the rise of the “autonomous ethicist”—specialists who attempt to work out the ethics necessary to program autonomous vehicles. This is going to be a social, moral, ethical, political, economic, and—ultimately—legal minefield. Many citizens, and every country, city, region, regulator, insurer, religion, civil rights group, and car manufacturer will want to contribute to the debate. The goal is to try and establish the rules and assumptions that will underpin the decision-making within an autonomous vehicle as it becomes aware that it is about to have an accident.

Should a self-driving vehicle prioritize the safety of its passenger, the pedestrian who stepped in front of it, or the pregnant mother on the pavement beside them? Should it put the interests of the taxi owner over those of the driver? How will it make those choices? Will it use facial recognition to identify individuals, and pull our tax records and other public information to work out what our net worth is to society or what our future contribution might be? How will it assess the contribution of a writer or journalist versus a baker, doctor, or actuary? What if it chooses to run down an irreplaceable hundred-year-old tree instead of a human? In a Hindu village in India, for example, running over a cow to save a passenger might be viewed as the worst possible outcome, and therefore the ethics programmed into the vehicle may prioritize the safety of the sacred animal over that of the human. Our ethicists will have to take account of all these different perspectives in constructing their guidance, and this could vary dramatically even within a country.

The Rise of New Sectors and Markets

Over the next decade, if things follow the “preferred future” that most nations and businesses are pursuing, the global economy could grow from about US$78Tn today to around US$120Tn. More than half of that is likely to come from businesses that have emerged recently or don’t yet exist, and over 80% will almost certainly be from products and services we don’t have today.

Industries will also change, with technology giving them a lower risk profile. Smart farms might mean fewer crop failures, the IoT could enable smart cities with better hazard prevention, and self-driving cars should theoretically never have accidents. Hence, the notions of self-owning and self-insuring vehicles becomes a possibility. An array of equally dramatic developments across a range of other sectors could have potentially serious implications for insurance. Furthermore, changing lifestyles, potentially lower real-term incomes, and smart tracking technology are all driving growth of the sharing economy and scenarios where ownership is becoming obsolete, and more possessions are shared and not owned by one individual. This goes along with the shrinking value of owning something and instead purchasing access to it. Shared items could come insured as part of the deal, thus negating any need for buying individual policies. The risks might be borne by the users and reflected in the price.

The growing experience economy also creates opportunities. For the developed world and middle classes everywhere, we are at a time in history where experiences are starting to matter more than things—while tricky to insure, these products could take a similar form to trip insurance. Infinitely flexible policies could be designed to protect people against bad dates or wasting their time on a movie they didn’t enjoy. The payout could vary from a ticket refund through to the cost of counseling and treatment should the experience be truly traumatizing.

Conclusion—Nurturing Human Qualities

To enable the kinds of shifts discussed here, a company needs to ensure an effective “innovation architecture” that supports a wide range of innovative thought and action across all employees. Key components would include ensuring leadership and management truly understand both the technologies reshaping our world and the associated mindsets that are creating new and disruptive concepts, strategies, business models, products, and services. At the local level, the freedom and capacity to conduct rapid market-facing experiments is critical—as is the need to have people across the organization seeking out and connecting with emerging businesses and sectors and their respective associations. These market-focused conversations are critical to understanding how current and future sectors and opportunities might evolve. The goal is to gain early access to what might become important future revenue streams.

For a company to navigate the decades ahead it needs to see itself as a living, breathing, constantly evolving, and very human organization—designed for and by people. This means a culture that embraces continuous innovation and experimentation on both an incremental and a dramatic scale, and willingness to pursue exponential improvements. Such a journey requires a highly empathetic, trusting, and nurturing relationship with employees where technology is seen as a means of allowing them the time to be creative, innovative, experimental, and customer-centric. In parallel, it means being seen to be supportive of those whose jobs are displaced. In short, it means committing to a very human future.


  • How do we go about helping the whole of society understand the fundamental shifts that are shaping our collective futures?
  • How might the future responsibilities of the firm evolve in relation to the needs of society?
  • How might we as humans and societies cope with a rapid transition to a post-jobs future?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

This chapter is based on an interview given to Il Bollettino.

Image: by geralt


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