Technology and economics: will your job survive?

Sun, 10 Mar 2013

There was an article in last week's Economist (The Robot Menace) that looked at how technology is  changing the type of tasks that humans do, The idea is that as technology gets cheaper and more capable, many routine tasks are getting taken over by technology, and the roles that need to be taken on by humans are those of implementing, driving, or troubleshooting the technology.

This isn't all bad news - the article concludes: "for the foreseeable future, the human advantage in cognitive flexibility and interpersonal interactions will be fairly secure".

My first takeaway from the article was the term cognitive flexibility.  It perfectly describes an increasingly valued quality that I've often promoted, but never had a name for.  By being able to change what you do when circumstances around you change, when technology becomes available or when the markets change, you'll be able to see rapid technological and economic change as an opportunity instead of a threat.

My next point may not apply to everybody, but I know it applies to far more people than currently believe it.  As well as being less easily replaced, jobs that require cognitive flexibility and ability to interact are more engaging, more enjoyable.  If you're not sure, think about the moments of your job that you enjoy most - it is unlikely to be the moments that could most easily be automated.

My third thought is about our education system.  Are we giving people the best opportunities to gain the needed skills in interpersonal interaction and cognitive flexibility?  I do see a lot of young people that are brilliant in these areas, so I'm generally optimistic in this respect.  But, I worry that other trends, for example increased standardisation, teaching to the test, and removing scope for creativity and love of learning, may be dragging them in the opposite direction.

And finally, what does it all mean for inequality in the world?  Maybe, better technology will mean that some people will be far more productive, and others redundant.  I don't agree with accepting that as the way it is, relying on tax to transfer money from the productive to the unproductive.  Instead, we're going to have to come up with creative ways of ensuring the vast majority of people are productive.

I don't have the answers (yet), but these are definitely questions I'm sure I'll be grappling with for some time.