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The Future of Jobs

Change is inevitable. Embrace it and look forward to the unimaginable with hope and wonder

Samit Basu  

As a science-fiction writer, one of the greatest challenges I face is writing a reality that's in any way stranger than the interesting times we live in now, with an additional burden: If reality doesn't make sense, why does fiction have to? At a time where technology is now leading us to fundamental alterations in every aspect of the world we inhabit, it's the job of sci-fi creators and futurists, as defined by author Charles Stross, to find systems that "mimic the patterns of the real world, and give us the chance to infer the intentions of the hidden manipulators. And that's why near-future SF remains relevant -- and dangerous -- in the 'post-truth' era."

The world we live in is not only tremendously more complicated than any of us were aware, it is going through multiple transformations at an ever-accelerating pace. But in these times if there's one message we should pay heed to, it's that of another great sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams: DON'T PANIC.

A short glance at what appears to be the near future might give us plenty to worry about: political instability and conflict all over the world, post-truth confusion, all of which distract us from the very real and unavoidable crises that will become more and more prominent over the next two generations. The first is climate change, which will require global cooperation and policy shifts to address. The second involves individual choices that will shape our lives even more intimately. How will we deal with the new industrial revolution that will sweep across the world, as automation changes the very nature of work and careers? What will we do when robots and AI [artificial intelligence] do a lot of the jobs that provide stable careers today? How will humanity in general, and you and I in particular, remain relevant? What will the jobs of tomorrow be in the first place, and how do we acquire the skills to get those jobs? Breathe. Don't panic.

Change is always difficult to deal with, and the greater the change, the more time we need to adjust to it -- time that the world we live in now simply does not give us as we hurtle from crisis to crisis. This is a feeling we are quite accustomed to in India, where we have never displayed much concern about the future. Citizens struggle to cope with the present, and politicians fight for control over the past, while our future remains untended.

Other, more advanced, countries are laying the foundations to cope with the post-automation era, because they have the luxury of planning ahead. Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan and others are building innovation-based economies that will lead the race for adapting to the robot/AI age. Inevitably, the countries that are the most prepared are the ones that will be affected the least, while developing economies such as ours will suffer greatly if software and robots prove to be cheaper than outsourced labour or tech workers, or opportunities for engineers and medical practitioners to move abroad are eliminated with increased automation. And increasingly, smart AI means that the risk of job irrelevance will be faced by senior and middle management and highly educated professionals, along with factory workers, as entire fields, from healthcare to stock market analysis, get overtaken by AI. We seem to be doing nothing about this at a policy level in terms of building education or relevant reskilling at the moment -- but as individuals, we can develop the tools we need to exist in the new world.

A Deloitte report said last year that machines would take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but we seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years. In other words, while the new industrial revolution will eliminate a few professions, it will create new ones. Who knew what social media experts, cybersecurity professionals and augmented reality designers were before this millennium arrived? The next wave of tech-led transformation will definitely lead to new, exciting avenues of human endeavour. And even if it's not clear what those will be, one thing is certain: We will have to pick up new skills, adapt and evolve far more than our parents did.

A relevant question for us in this part of the world: while all these changes will definitely transform the way we work, how deep will the local impact be? Our recent demonetization showed us that we simply did not have the infrastructure or a strong communication network to be a cashless economy at any point of time in the near future, and such change could only happen in a gradual and ideally organized manner. The abundance of cheap labour in our country means that certain jobs -- such as cooks, craftspeople or real-estate agents -- will remain viable, for social and economic reasons, in India long after they have disappeared in developed countries.

It's mostly impossible for career counsellors in the present day to give specific solutions to the problems of what the best fields to enter are. We didn't know a decade ago how app-ruled the world would be, for example, just as we don't know exactly when 3D-printer-operation skills will become essential. In their book Only Humans Need Apply, Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby have discussed a coping mechanism that depends on staying ahead of big data, AI and robots by picking fields of specialization that are human strengths -- jobs that involve creativity, empathy and inter-human communication. Jobs that involve deep specialization, for which there are no machines. Jobs that involve supervising machines, or even designing them and teaching them.

The technology of the future isn't your enemy, no more than your smartphone, or your bottle opener, is. Change is inevitable, and embracing it, working in partnership with it and keeping an eye on the future will ensure that you look forward to the unimaginable, with wonder and hope alongside the perfectly natural slice of worry. Don't panic!

Samit Basu is an internationally acclaimed science-fiction author, currently working on a book set in near-future India

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