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Is Automation Destined to Rewrite all Our Futures? Three Futurist Perspectives

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might society need to reframe our notions of jobs and incomes in the age of automation?
A New Economic Dialogue

In this article, we explore three alternative futurist perspectives on how advances in technology could impact notions of employment, jobs, and income.

Rohit Talwar – Let’s Not Wait to Find Out

Fundamental changes are taking place in the ways organizations are using technology. Many are embarking on radical digital overhauls to enable them to deliver new offerings, enhance service, improve efficiency, and increase cost competitiveness. The reality is that widescale automation will inevitably lead to job reductions across everything from mining and the manufacturing industries to transport and the legal sector.

New sectors are of course emerging and creating opportunities—but no one yet knows if they will generate enough jobs to replace those displaced by technology, or how long that might take. Some estimates suggest up to 80% of all current jobs could be digitized. New industry sectors such as laboratory grown meat, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, and synthetic materials will be highly automated from the outset, requiring very different capabilities and a highly skilled workforce. The transition to these new roles will not be smooth for the production worker, shift manager, warehouse assistant, sales person, truck driver, or even lawyer whose jobs are at risk.

While there might be a tendency to “wait and see”—this could be calamitously risky. The change when it happens will cascade and accelerate, rapidly leaving unprepared governments and societies in a paralyzing state of shock. I believe it is far better to anticipate impending disruptions and risks and act now to start putting society on a more sustainable footing—thus ensuring it is resilient enough to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment.


I believe there are five fundamental actions that forward-looking governments should be taking right now.

1. Experimenting with Guaranteed Basic Incomes and Services

The firms doing the job automation need customers to buy their goods and services. Hence, we see many in Silicon Valley arguing for some form of automation tax to fund the provision of universal guaranteed basic incomes (UBI) and services (UBS) to everyone in society. Some governments refuse to countenance the idea on ideological grounds because they think it reeks of communism. However, others are recognizing that something needs to be done to avoid large-scale social decline and potential citizen unrest. Hence, many countries including Finland, Germany, and Canada are undertaking UBI experiments to understand the concept, assess the social impact, measure the costs, and prepare themselves while they still have time.

2.  A Massive Expansion of Support for Start-Up Creation

People will inevitably have to take more control of their own destiny. One way is to create their own job or small business that is far less immune to risks of technology replacing humans. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation would accelerate the rate at which people can build new businesses and generate jobs for the mentors.

3. Research and Development in Key Knowledge Sectors

A competitive economy demands cutting-edge innovation. A safe society requires research and development on the materials and processes that will enable that. Not all R&D lends itself to assessment based on the return on investment—some just has to be undertaken for the betterment of society. Hence, expanding research funding and the number of places is an important enabler of tomorrow’s job creation.

4. Rethinking Education at Every Level

Success in the future will require a smart, adaptable and highly educated workforce. Indeed, many commentators and some governments anticipate that within a decade, most new jobs will require a graduate level of education as a minimum. How that is acquired may well look very different to today.

To survive and thrive I think everyone will need to understand both the technologies and the mindsets shaping the future. Uber and Airbnb have lots of technological competitors—their true point of difference is their mindset—a radically different way of thinking about how you deliver on customer desires without owning any assets or employing any of the service delivery staff. We also need to help people develop higher-level skills that will help them learn rapidly and transition into jobs that don’t even exist today. These include collaboration, problem solving, navigating complexity, scenario thinking, and accelerated learning.

Hence, I believe we need to massively increase the provision of free adult education using existing facilities at schools and higher education institutions for delivery—most are unused in the evening. We also need to reduce pupil-teacher ratios at school level to help with personalized support—the evidence is clear on the impact. This also means looking at the charges imposed on students pursuing higher education—we need a well-educated workforce to propel the country forward—many nations are providing free degree level education. Countries like the UK, that charge for tertiary education, need a sustainable solution that doesn’t leave future generations demotivated, disillusioned, and saddled with debts that they cannot repay.

5. Addressing the Mental Health Challenge

Across society, the scale and severity of mental health issues is rising. Large-scale job displacement will only increase that. An enlightened approach would be to fund people to train as therapists while still working today so that they will be ready to help when the challenge becomes a major problem in 2-4 years’ time.

There’s clearly a cost associated with enabling all these activities, but we have to ask ourselves of what the risks and potential costs of inaction might be. A short-term saving on such expenditure could lead to a very long-term increase in the cost of funding unemployment benefits and policing a society that feels let down.

Steve Wells – A  Realigning of Resources

Exponential technology development represents a possibility explosion; the possibility to create new industries, new products and services, new business models, and new occupations. Rather than displacing more jobs than it creates, it will herald the advent of a new world, one that presents the opportunity for us to commit to a very human future.

Can automation really replace—as some have predicted—around a half of existing jobs? If we consider that—even within the challenging context of the disruptive nature of exponential technology development—the very same technologies will support the creation of new businesses. They will provide scope for innovative business models to bring products and services to market for a customer base who will be working in jobs that do not exist yet.

I expect to see functions such as data analysts (leveraging big data and artificial intelligence), specialized sales representatives (commercializing and articulating new product and service propositions), and senior managers and leaders (to steer companies through the upcoming change and disruption) become critically important over the coming years.

I also expect to see an increasing number of occupations comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today. Social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence, and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.

This transition is not without challenges. But, with a broader re-assessment of the partnership between business, government, and society, maybe we are entering a once in a millennium opportunity to redefine society’s relationship with employment. Maybe part of what we seek is the discovery of our humanity; to find time for leisure, self-improvement, spiritualty, or being with loved ones. Maybe it is time for a very human future.

Alexandra Whittington – The Social Safety Net

I take the view that machines will manufacture and distribute everything with almost no humans involved, and new businesses will be fully automated from the start. By 2040, up to 80-90% of jobs could be gone, and not be replaced with new opportunities. This only really works for humanity under the universal basic income (UBI) scenario that Elon Musk and others have advocated for.

In 20 years, automation may have created a society where jobs aren’t available or not being created at the scale necessary to employ the large numbers of people automated out of a job. Only the most highly skilled human workers would be needed, creating a huge underclass of people with no job, no prospects, and no income.

One way to pay for this program would be to fine companies for each job they automate, or to tax the use of robotic workers. In manufacturing, a form of community profit sharing could be adopted. Companies might be expected to supplement the living standards of the local communities in which they are located by providing for the basic needs of the residents and former employees. Manufacturers might go from being a profit focused business to providing a social service—giving away free products to local citizens or actual cash payments to municipalities in place of creating jobs. Where the community might not be able to use the product, then it could be sold by the manufacturer and the revenues donated to the community.

It might be reasonable to ask that any product being produced by automated labor would have a ratio of free giveaways to sales, following the innovative business models of firms like Toms Shoes, where for each pair of shoes sold, a free pair is provided to people in underprivileged communities. I believe that under this scenario companies could become very creative and proactive in coming up with ways to give back, including strategies to supplement UBI, if they wish to take full advantage of automation.


  • How do we start to prepare society for a future where the outlook for jobs is so uncertain?
  • How can we mobilize individuals to take greater responsibility for their continual learning and future job opportunities?
  • How can we test and debate radical new ideas around Universal Basic Incomes, automation taxes, and community profit sharing?


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

A version of this chapter was originally published in FMCG News.

Image: by geralt


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