What will work be like in the future? In January 2019 the world leaders of the World Economic Forum will meet in Davos to try, among other things, to answer this question. New technology and ever evolving employment models have completely transformed work life as we know it. Governments and institutions are called to manage these dynamics in a proactive way, not simply absorbing them passively but rather by guiding them and seizing “opportunities” for workers. “Opportunity” is the key word, as reported from the World Economic Forum. Better to focus the attention on scenarios that technology creates rather than those being destroyed.
So here are the three possible realities that could be created in the future world of work.
Scenario 1: automation as a channel of optimization
Ideally, robots and artificial intelligence will have two main objectives: grow the company and be used by the work force to optimize their tasks. If companies use automation with these purposes without being used, industry 4.0 will then be used to optimize the future of work. Parag Khanna, author of The Future is Asian, supports this idea. From his perspective, automation must satisfy 4 standards to be effectively integrated in the organization of work: improve instead of substituting conditions and opportunities of work; improve the way companies place themselves on the market; add value for clients; improve the use potential of data without violating privacy laws. “Automation and artificial intelligence should create advantages for companies, their clients and their work force”, Khanna says.
Scenario 2: cooperation with machines, not automation
In this vision, the work force integrates with technology without being replaced. This scenario encourages companies to involve the work force in automation, rather than alienating it. In this context, even union organizations and governments are agents in the development of new strategies for the organization of work in relation to technology. Cisco, for example, recently engaged its workforce in a 24-hour "breakathon" to break down and rebuild its human resource management software. Over 800 employees took part in the event, divided into small groups, to identify the problems they had experienced while they were doing their work and putting forward ideas for solutions. One of the ideas that emerged lead to the creation of YouBelong@Cisco, a mobile app that guides new employees and their managers during the first few weeks on the job. “We have to understand what must be done to create a new social contract with workers”, stresses Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.
We need to change the way we are moving forward: from an old model of inequality of access to a new model in which the use of digital technologies creates new opportunities
Scenario 3: digital transformation leads to a transformation of the workforce
Industry 4.0 is not limited to the big G20 countries. Even emerging markets are becoming a scenario through which it’s possible to visualize the future of work. In Indonesia for example, digital technology and shared mobility have lead to the birth of one of the largest companies in the history of the country. In Kenya, furthermore, 48% of the country's GDP is processed via mobile phones, creating a real industry around the M-Pesa mobile payment company.
“We need to change the way we are moving forward: from an old model of inequality of access to a new model in which the use of digital technologies creates new opportunities”, says Richard Heeks, director of the Center for Development Informatics and senior researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester University. “The second related theme would be to create decent digital work: the need to defend and promote basic occupational standards in the digital economy. Otherwise the inequalities will grow further and will tear apart the already fragile social fabric”.
The final question is: can automation and human beings coexist in a positive and advantageous way? Looking at the possibilities of Industry 4.0 through the lens of complex games is a way to imagine an optimistic future. When the IBM Watson AI program defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov, the world was shocked. Now humans won’t play chess anymore? Have algorithms overtaken the human brain? Automation will, most certainly, grow its level of competence in time. In many cases this level could overtake human capacity, but you can be certain – as experts from all sides say – that human skills will be central to the management of Industry 4.0. Artificial and human intelligence will go hand in hand.