Technology and the future of work

Cass academic considers the future role of technology at work.

Professor Feng Li, an expert in information management at Cass Business School, considers how technology may influence the future of work.

A plethora of new technological developments, combined with social, political and economic changes, are leading to significant changes in the way we work. Some of these changes will happen in the next five to ten years, but many will take decades longer.

Key technologies include Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly based on big data and machine learning; automation and robotics; autonomous vehicles, connected homes, smart cities, wearable technologies, Internet of Things, mobile communications and the cloud, are singly and collectively enabling new ways of working and living.  Other significant developments include the sharing economy, new business models, Virtual Reality (VR) and AR, and 3D printing.  

However, the future is highly uncertain.  Some developments are predictable but many are not.  Just because something is technologically feasible does not mean it will be adopted.  For every successful technological innovation (such as the iPhone), there are plenty more tech flops - just look at Google Glasses; Apple Watch; and 3D TV.  The same could even happen to AR and VR, although many big tech firms are currently betting on them.  I would like to believe that they will succeed in the next couple of years - and even wrote a report on it - The Future of Video.

Remember teleworking?

Back in the 1970s during the first oil crisis, combined with the advent of the information economy where most work had become more information intensive, over half of the workforce in developed countries were information workers.  So instead of commuting to work in city centre in person, we could electronically take work to where people were by telecommunications and computing –Telecommuting or Teleworking.  

This has never really taken off as projected.  Even after 50 years, many of us are working more flexibly and can do many tasks effectively from home or anywhere we want, but we still come to the office and get together with colleagues regularly.  Some of our fundamental assumptions about work were wrong.  Work is not just what we do, but also where we go and who we go with.  We should be cautious when predicting the future of work with AI and other new technologies, which may take much longer to materalise, and may eventually happen in very different ways from how we imagined today.  

Transport and technology

Recently, many London Underground drivers have walked out on strike, causing chaos and misery for millions of commuters, not to mention the huge economic and other damages to businesses and individuals.  The last time this happened, it turned out that the reason for the strike was that eight train drivers (yes, eight) were unhappy about being moved from one depot to another.  How could a handful of train drivers hold a whole city to ransom when, technologically, we don’t really even need train drivers at all?  

Anyone who has been to Singapore will know that the technologies have been available for decades for driverless trains, which could serve London far better than using human drivers, at huge savings to millions of people, but we are all repeatedly held to ransom by the powerful trade unions, stopping efforts to modernise the London Underground, at high costs for commuters and for the economy.  It remains to be seen how driverless cars will proliferate.  Today, people still drive cars with manual gearboxes, so it will be a far bigger leap for driverless cars to be widely taken up. Will airline pilots, train, bus, lorry, taxi drivers still be around in ten years’ time?  I suspect they will be.

Skills and social mobility

Another issue about the future of work is related to low skilled work and social mobility. As technologies develop and the talent and capital classes capture a disproportionate share of wealth, people at the bottom of society are increasingly accumulating around the minimum wage.  Just visit any department stores or shop, you will see armies of low paid shop assistants. The ageing society will require care assistants and domestic helpers.  Would robots replace those people?  Probably not – just as ATMs did not replay bank tellers.  In fact, demand might grow for low skilled workers.  Political, economic and social forces will slow down or prevent the onslaught of robotics and automation.  Taxing robots, recently suggested by Bill Gates, is just silly and unpractical, and it is wrong in so many levels.  It is a tax on capital investment.   

Rise of the robots

Robots, AI and other technologies are very good at certain tasks but this does not mean they can replace humans.  My guess is, some jobs will be replaced, but for many others, AI and robots will help humans do their jobs better – and help us to live our lives more comfortably. We do what humans do best and robots help us with a growing range of tasks.  In the meantime, lots of new jobs will be created too.  We will not all be lazing about all day long with robots doing everything for us.  If anything, we might get even busier.  

What does the future hold?

When making projections about the future of work, we should remember that the world is not standing still.  What were the predictions when photocopiers and IBM computers first came out?  The chances are, job increases will outstrip supply.  

The biggest problem with debates about technology and future of work is that people often mix up different perspectives, issues at different levels; and the phenomenon, their consequences, and the business and policy measures to address them.  The future of work will change, by and large for the better, for the majority of people.  Nevertheless, there will be painful transitions for many people, which call for interventions at the policy, business and individual levels. The future is bright, but some of us might have to experience some pain to get there.

Professor Feng Li is Chair of Information Management at Cass Business School. His research investigates the use of digital technologies (ICTs) for strategic innovation and organisational transformation in different sectors, from banking, telecom, manufacturing, retailing, the creative industries, to the public and voluntary sectors.