Guy Lipman’s recent blog post got me thinking about the future of work. Inspired by another awesome blog post, he outlined reasons as to why it is undesirable for society to have high wealth inequality. I really recommend reading it.

The upshot is that most people will most likely be out of jobs as automation becomes more prevalent. If your job can be automated, then you are most likely to be unemployed in a near future. Think about Google recent push to develop autonomous cars. While this may be a great news for commuting drivers, it is a bad one for those whose jobs involve driving vehicles (mostly to deliver goods). The first companies that are mostly likely to take up these vehicles are taxi and postal companies.

A reasonable conclusion from this observation is this: for an individual to thrive in this new paradigm, learn to code or monetise your artistic creativity. For me, it is unrealistic to expect everyone in a society to develop their skills in coding or artistic endeavour.

What this means for the future labour? One thing is certain. It will be increasingly complex and rich. I want to share two interesting ideas to be optimistic about.

Our interaction with robots/automation will change

The underlying assumption on the idea that technology will replace human workforce is that our relationship with it will remain unchanged. Historically, when new technology enters the market, initially it would be very disruptive, but as it matures, what tends to happen is that people develop a secondary product to bridge the gap between the technology and human. For instance, word processing. Prior to MS Word, word processing on computer requires a technical know-how. Nowadays, anyone can pick it up with ease.

Here are some signs in this direction.

Coding: Traditionally, this has been a tough gap to bridge. Wolfram has already made some advances in programming using natural language (note the year!). While there will always be demand for programmers, this front-end language allows normal people to do basic programming without having to learn all specific syntax. I think that in the future, we may program very differently, just like word processing with MS Word.

Robot: Robots have already displaced most of workers in manufacturing industry. However, we are seeing a version of front-end programming for robots too. In a TED talk, Rodney Brooks demonstrated how we may change the human-robot interaction so it is beneficial. So, yes, the traditional jobs won’t be around, but technology opens access to jobs that are traditionally inaccessible. In the same example, elderlies are now able to access labour intensive jobs as robot trainers.

New economics

It is easy to be afraid of technologies displacing human. However, we tend to forget how  many more jobs it creates that we didn’t think of, as they free up more resources, more time, more wealth and more flexibility. For example, the invention of automobiles displaced jobs related to horse-drawn carriages, but it also gave rise to fast food industry, travel industry, oil industry, traffic engineering and many more.

So, what jobs may computer/automation create?

Looking at Millennials, I think that in the future there will be more craving for human connections. This means while automation will lower the operational cost and displace jobs, it will drive some people towards niche market that emphasises personalised service. For consumers, this means choices. You can pay cheaply for an automated product or at a premium, receive personalised service.

For any individual, the question one should ask oneself is: what value do I add into a product?

PS: You might be interest to listen to Freakonomics podcast on future of jobs.