The Future of Work

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I recently attended a panel discussion led by Cognizant in Davos, Switzerland. The topic revolved around the daunting prospect of an AI-enabled workplace and what happens to all of us humans when the robots take over. What struck me most about Cognizant’s message, in particular, was its teeming optimism. Just imagine: a future when humans will be freed from mundane work and left to be the unbound explorers of our own professional ambitions and intellectual curiosities! This is a promise that has been dangled in front of us since the concept of AI, machine learning, workplace automation, and robotics began.

But, when will it happen? It already is. Jobs have begun changing in most sectors. Here are some immediate examples:

Manufacturing – An industry that has been slowly automating for decades. People are needed to program the machines, monitor their operation, and troubleshoot when something breaks, but robots do all the heavy lifting, so to speak. Now you can go weeks and months without an OSHA violation and your workers can keep their fingers and toes!

Farming--  Whether for viticulture or soybeans, modern farms run on automation and data. Farmers program machinery and sensors to perform and monitor all activities, including tilling, planting, pruning, harvesting, soil reconditioning, and all other steps of the growing process in order to optimize yield and minimize soil damage. If you want to get your hands dirty, take up community gardening, not farming.

Customer Service -- The last time you tried to change your cell phone plan or return a pair of pants, chances are you chatted with a bot before you talked to a human. For routine inquiries, most people are unable to tell the difference between a chatbot made to mimic human interactions and an actual human (but here’s how, if you want to know). And they never become impatient or get mad!

Grocery Stores -- You may recall when Amazon launched its pilot of the cashierless Go store that automates the check-out process using RFID tags and sensors to know when you have left the store and with what. Anyone who has been to a regular grocery store (or Home Depot or Walmart) has probably noticed that the number of self-checkout aisles has increased and the number of cashiers has decreased.

And those are just a few. There are dozens of other sectors in which this kind of activity is not only emerging, but expanding. Now, machines are able to tackle cognitively intensive work like pattern matching and classification (e.g. facial recognition, however biased), as well as basic conversations (see the Alexa Prize) and AI-based hiring (see Pymetrics). All proof that work will change for the better – and a lot sooner than we think.