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The Future of Work: Technology and Automation

As the summer of 2016 rolls in, it would certainly appear that a phenomena that has been 30 years in the making is beginning to come to light. Rapid changes in technology and the job market are affecting the ways we live and work. For one example of major change, have a look at our neighbours to the south where an idea has seemingly and inexplicably risen to a level not yet fathomed other than as a joke mere months ago; the rise of The Donald, as in Trump, looks as though it may be here to stay… a scary thought indeed.

As a Canadian observer on the sidelines, there are some issues we certainly need to be aware of as the Trump vs Clinton presidential contest takes over our airwaves and party talk in the months ahead. For instance, Mr. Trump has made huge grounds on the backs of being anti-trade, anti-NAFTA in particular, claiming that trade is the mechanism with which Americans have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs to China, Mexico etc. Ours here is not to debate free trade but let’s look a little closer at what was the real change, the role technology has played, and crystal ball the perhaps forthcoming for IT jobs.

We do know for sure that both Canada and the US have lost manufacturing jobs over the last decade or more, Canada in particular has suffered deeper declines. The US’s lost jobs, though, in terms of productivity or manufacturing output, has increased dramatically, and manufacturers make on average more than twice the “stuff” they did in 1977. Therefore, it is safe to say the disruptive force at play affecting manufacturing jobs dramatically has not been trade, trade agreements, immigration or globalization. The disruptive force is technology and automation. And, while manufacturing jobs have disappeared, the business services sector grew over the same time and is now three times the size of the manufacturing sector.

So now what? The future of work stands to be disrupted like nothing we have seen in history. The pace of change in the way we work and work itself will be exponential in the coming years.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are changing the way we work and live. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and IBM are all working very hard at monetizing their AI portfolio. The likely early leader will be Google and its DeepMind AI, an example of AI capable of deep learning, yes learning. In addition, Amelia is an AI created by IPsoft that has learned how to do the job of call center employees and in 20 languages. And of course, we all are aware of the pending arrival of the self-driving car.

The game changer is that AI is becoming good for more than routine and non-cognitive tasks and beginning to take over the cognitive or learning tasks. The new frontier is any job that humans can do is no longer safe. The so called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is soon upon us and will undoubtedly change us all. Jobs will disappear BUT new jobs and perhaps new definitions of work itself will emerge, that much we know… I think.