The metaphor increasingly used by tech pundits that “Data is the oil of the 21st Century and AI is the new electricity” conjures up a clever image of where we are heading on the tech superhighway.
Yet whilst I’m excited about the acceleration of technology and many of the positive benefits to society, I’m also deeply concerned about how we are preparing ourselves for some of the social consequences we could be sleepwalking into.
We live in a world where constant change is part of our daily lives. Moore’s Law has morphed into the Singularity Effect where technologies are converging, accelerating, digitising, democratising and disrupting everything around us. We can see a world in the near future where there will be countless benefits to healthcare, education, financial inclusion, clean water, hunger and many other areas of the lives of all global citizens emanating from low cost renewable energy, AI, blockchain, 3D printing and the Internet of Things. In his excellent book “Abundance” Peter Diamandis sets out very coherently how we have what we need already, or we certainly will do very soon, to address many of the UN Social Development Goals (SDGs) as long as we join up the dots.
Yet at the same time we are seeing headlines and reports from credible sources predicting 30%—40% of jobs in the UK and USA will be lost to AI within the next 15 years. Some businesses are addressing this proactively. For example, Accenture is quoted as having automated over 17,000 jobs without a single redundancy. However they are likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
It’s true that the foundations of our working lives have already changed dramatically. Charles Handy, who has written extensively about organisational change, predicted, several decades ago, much of what we are seeing evolve today from jobs for life into a more portfolio approach to careers.
However, whilst we hear a lot about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and coding schools for the young, the challenge ahead is much more extensive across all age ranges. If we are to address it, we must act quickly otherwise we may fully wake up to the challenge too late. Rather than the utopia that technology could create, we end up with a dystopia with a hollowed out society where a small number of knowledge workers create and control the wealth, a vast number of people are unemployed from blue and white collar jobs lost to AI and there is a base of low-skilled, low-paid jobs for tasks that cannot be automated.
If you want to survive on this new highway to the future, regardless of your age, you need to have digital agility to evolve your skills as technology advances. The survivors will be the individuals who embrace lifelong learning and the businesses that put serious effort into becoming talent magnets. Businesses will need to create a virtuous circle by attracting, developing and retaining skills of their employees and, when people do leave, establishing a strong alumni network.
One business, in the Growth4Good portfolio, that is leading the way in the new world of work is Digital Mums They have embraced a digital first approach and are pioneers and proponents of flexible working. They recognise that mums leaving the workforce to have kids is a major issue both for the mums, who would like to return on a flexible basis, but also the businesses that are suffering from massive skills leakage. Consequently, they have created a range of B2C and B2B technology learning programmes to equip mums to freelance or return flexibly back into the workplace.
Unfortunately so many businesses are still entrenched in outdated working practices. These are serious obstacles and cost billions to economic growth whilst also creating a massive shortage of digital talent where it is most needed. The Government is taking steps to address this and boost employment prospects for the long term with the UK Digital Strategy and the Apprenticeship Levy, both launched this year. Now the onus is on business to step up. As McKinsey and many others have identified, businesses need to address their working practices fast not just because it is the right thing to do but also because it’s good for business. There are many ways to be a good business but having a duty to look after those that work for you is self-evident. Business as a force for good can then signpost the way for citizens on the digital highway of the future.