Jobs, technology and the future

This 3D Printer is currently printing a turtle.

This 3D Printer is currently printing a turtle.

WHEN considering the future and the way that technology will develop, most of us usually think about it as if change will happen at some vague point in time which can just be ignored, but that is the wrong approach. Looking ahead, we are about to see a lot of changes to our understanding of work and how the economy operates but at the moment the importance of this remains under-emphasised. For those of us at university, it is still under-appreciated just how different our lives are going to be from previous generations and how much technology is going revolutionise the way jobs operate. The best way to illustrate the changes that are about to happen is by using two examples; the rise of 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence. We should also consider the overall effect that these changes are going to have upon us and how policy makers should take into account change when discussing the future.

A key part of the future of manufacturing will involve 3D printing. At the moment 3D printing is relatively small scale and limited in use however with recent breakthroughs and rising interest in the field it could be soon possible that 3D printing could potentially be used on cars or phones. The journalist and writer Chris Anderson has illustrated the change well by considering 3D printing through the prism of his idea of democratising manufacturing. He uses the example of a basic model of a doll’s house which could then be personalised to a child’s specific desires. Mass marketed products could be specialised to individual tastes, radically changing the way we consider the operation of business. Instead of coming up with a set design and then mass producing it for sale in megastores, you could post your design online and for a fee people could download it and then make their own personal adaptions before printing at home on their own 3D printer. These innovations would radically alter our understanding of business and, crucially for our age group, make the future more uncertain and less reliant on the old corporate business model.

Arguably one of the biggest developments that will occur during the next few decades will be the development and growth of artificial intelligence, an area which at present produces a lot more light than heat and invokes thoughts of the Terminator or Matrix films. The truth of the matter is that a big spike in computing power it is not going to produce an AI that will exterminate mankind, rather it will be a prediction machine that has a greater degree of accuracy and speed than we currently have in computing. This will lead to the automation of many jobs as computers will be able to do many tasks at the moment too advanced for them. A recent study by Oxford University called The Future of Employment ranked a series of jobs based upon the likelihood that a machine will soon be doing them with 47% of the current US workforce at risk of automation. This shift would in practise mean swathes of the economy being swept aside by AI, but with the added problem of questioning what will come next.

As university students these technological developments are especially important considering that the vast majority of us will be in employment till our seventies. Considering the scale of the changes at the moment we head into an unknown world where job certainties over a long time scale may prove few and far between. What is important to take away from all these points is that the jobs that will probably survive will not be dull, repetitive ones but the challenging and interesting jobs where a simple result cannot just be produced or expected and where human contact is needed. In practical terms what this means is unknown. However we should take some comfort from the words of Adam Smith Institute President Madsen Pirie who pointed out that like with the Industrial Revolution there will be new jobs caused by robotics and automation.

What we need to think about is how we should react to these changes. Robin Chase goes into great depth in her book Peers Inc about the way in which she believes that the market is going to keep changing and argues the case for continuous education throughout life in order to all people to adapt to changes. She also argues for a basic income for all citizens to protect them from job insecurity, something currently being tested in some European countries. Yes, this is just her perspective on the issue but it is an example of someone engaging with the changes the world is about to experience. When considering politics, we should all be thinking about the way in which the government should react to changes about to occur, especially considering the potential impact these changes are going to have on the economy because change is coming and we need to start preparing for it.