It is not every day that you get to speak to a futurist/ forecaster of jobs. It took me four months of sweat and toil to find one. But I got lucky and got the chance to interview Professor Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley-based forecaster with more than three decades of experience helping corporate and governmental clients understand and respond to the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change. He teaches at Stanford, where he is a consulting associate professor in the School of Engineering, and a distinguished visiting scholar in the Stanford Media-X network. The range of questions I could ask him was immense. I narrowed them down to just 9. I hope you find this conversation as interesting as I did. If you have any questions to ask Professor Saffo, do send them across, we might just about plan a sequel with him.
1) What is the future of work according to you, as a futurist?
It is important to distinguish ‘work’ from a ‘job’. A job is what one gets paid for -- work is what gives one meaning. Thus, the notion of work is not going to disappear any time soon regardless of what might happen to job, but work itself will change dramatically. This is why I am somewhat skeptical about application of Universal Basic Income, at least in the US. Unemployed workers in the rust belt don’t just need a salary — they need meaning.
More generally, as a forecaster, I notice that whatever question is being asked by everyone is usually the wrong question. For example, ‘Will robots steal our jobs?’ is definitely the wrong question. A better question would be, ‘What is the future of work? ‘Better yet is to ask what an economy occupied by humans and intelligent machines will look like. So, whenever a new issue appears, it is always a good idea to step back and ask oneself if everyone is actually asking the right question. Is there a deeper and vastly more important question that everyone is overlooking...?
2) Who exactly is a Futurist?
I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the label ‘futurist’, because the term carries a load of distracting baggage, and besides, there is no consensus around a single definition. ‘Futurist’ encompasses everything from disciplined analytic study of long-term trends to reckless speculation and ill-informed opining about what lies ahead.
In my case, I prefer ‘forecaster’ because my work is rooted in analytics and I believe that sensationalising outcomes interferes with effective foresight.
I also don’t predict, for the simple reason that prediction is impossible. The future is definitionally contingent on events that haven’t happened yet — including events that one can affect and control. My job is to first define an aspect of uncertainty extending into the future and then assess the internal elements in order to identify probabilities and specific alternate outcomes. Judge a futurist not by what they got right (it might have been just luck), but by whether they fully accounted for the relevant uncertainty.
As humans, we are predictive creatures. A part of us is always living in the future, telling our present tense selves what to do. We are endlessly curious about what is over the next hill, what tomorrow holds. In this sense, we are all futurists — our actions in the present are inevitably informed by our expectations regarding the future. Arguably, each of us is alive today because we had ancestors who were effective futurists, all the way back to distant ancestors who were good enough at predicting where predators might be hiding, and thus survived to reproduce. Thinking like a futurist isn’t a pastime — it is a survival skill.
3) ....and what are the areas you keep a keen eye on?
I tend to divide my time into three areas: immediate, emergent and latent. Immediate issues are ones that are on everyone's mind (such as robotics, AI, climate change). Their nature is well understood, and the only uncertainty is over how to respond and what the ultimate outcome will be.
Emergent issues are ones still far off enough that they are generally treated as mere curiosities or overlooked entirely. Biology and life sciences are good examples: though digital technology is getting all the attention at the moment, the impact of the still-emerging biology revolution will dwarf that of silicon and software. Another is whether we are alone in the universe: the question is clear, but the answer is utterly unknown. And when answered it will shake human culture and beliefs utterly to their core.
Latent issues are like tiny spots on the horizon -- hard to glimpse, much less make sense of. This is where I am happiest, and I know I am working in the right zone because when I describe what I see, people react with puzzled looks or outright skepticism. Issues in this category today include the coming post-2050 global population decline, and whether we can become a spacefaring species.
My advice is to be on the lookout for things that don't fit, that seem out of place and can't quite be defined. Very often these anomalies are important advance indicators of some larger shift that haven’t revealed themselves yet.
4) Should we be afraid of automation/ technology? As a Futurist, how much will technology govern us in times to come?
Our fear of automation is an old one, going back not only to the early English industrial revolution and the Luddites, but beyond to the Greeks and their uneasy fascination with Hephaestus' mythical automata. The good news is that history provides some comfort: each previous wave of automation has benefitted humankind, creating more wealth, and incidentally more jobs. John Maynard Keynes put it succinctly in 1930 when he observed that of course automation destroys jobs, but on balance it creates more jobs than it destroys.
The question then is this: is this moment different? Will the current wave of technology create more work for humans than it destroys? Will global society accommodate smoothly to the arrival of synthetic intelligences? The answer comes down to speed. Social change and accommodation always lag behind technological innovation. When the gap grows too great, the result is revolution. But if the gap can be kept comparatively narrow, either by accelerating social change or retarding technological innovation, then the transition could be comparatively smooth. I am an optimist: the technological innovation rate is unlikely to slow, but the diverse nature of global society gives us ample pools of social and cultural innovation to draw from in response.
5) Therefore, what should we be aware of, what should we work towards?
When it comes to the future of work, the operative concept is the Moral Economy. CASBS (Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences) is leading a multi-year project looking at how to construct a moral economy in this age of rapidly advancing digital technology. This is a moment when exponential technologies are leading us into a new age of abundance. The question is whether this abundance will become the basis of more just and equal world, or if it will lead us down a zero-sum path towards a world in which a tiny minority control the vast bulk of wealth and opportunity.
I, of course, believe that we must work towards a global moral economy in which inequality is narrowed and everyone appreciates the relationship between collective rights and responsibilities. If we don't, the result will be a breathtaking collapse of social order.
6) What are the skills of the future and how can they be acquired?
Here at Stanford's D-school, my colleagues frequently talk about creating T-shaped people: individuals with deep expertise in one area (the leg of the T) combined with broad cognitive skills (The top of the T). Deep expertise provides your current job, and broad skills allow one to quickly shift into new areas as old areas evaporate and new areas open up.
To put it another way, the most important skill one can have is the ability to learn new skills.
7) What could be some new roles of the future?
New technologies always create new kinds of work. Imagine trying to describe jobs like web guru or clone engineer to someone in 1995. Without a doubt, we will have a magnitude of more kinds of jobs to do than we have today. In fact, I suspect we will have a worker shortage emerging well before 2050.
The larger question is which jobs will be the safest from robot takeover, and the short answer is jobs that are non-routine and complex. The next safest are jobs that are non-routine but also not complex: workers in this area will not only still have jobs - they will have robot assistants. The jobs most at risk are jobs that are routine and complex - airline pilots are going to be among the first to go, specialty surgeons may not be far behind.
Ironically, knowledge worker professionals are at greatest risk of being automated out of a job. Consider the average lawyer and how much of what they do is utterly routine and easily automated. And the safest job on the planet? Being a parent! Parenting is quite possibly the single most complex and utterly non-routine work on the planet, not to mention the most important work anyone can do.
8) In timelines, can you tell us about the evolution of work?
I could go on at length about the evolution of jobs and work over the last few centuries (it is an utterly fascinating topic), but one can summarise the entire history in one word: acceleration. Changes of a scale that once took an entire generation to play out now unfold in years, or sometimes in mere months.
The core concept of work will remain a constant as an activity that gives us purpose and others a result. But how it is expressed in the form of jobs will evolve with breathtaking speed.
9) What are the key global work trends that excite you?
The biggest shift of the last three decades was the arrival of cyberspace, because in cyberspace there is no distance between two points. This freed up human capital marooned in locations far from where the jobs were and created vast new opportunities. Just ask any software programmer in India!
Advances in telecommunications will continue this trend and will be augmented by the arrival of new classes of digital assistants that will amplify human work, not only in cyberspace, but in the physical world. We already have humans remotely operating air traffic control at distant airports, and remote management of robotic lorries or working in hazardous zones like mines is not far off.
So what excites me most is the arrival of robotic assistants. In a few decade, the average human manager may be managing more robots than humans. This is why I think that Keynes' dictum from 1930 still holds: of course robots will destroy jobs, but on balance, they will create more jobs than they destroy
10) Where are we, where innovation is concerned?
Innovations breed more innovations, and the process has become global and self-catalytic. For better or worse, accelerating innovation is becoming a planetary force fuelled by exponential technologies, and in that sense, it has barely begun. We will see more change and innovation in the next 20 years than we have seen in the last 200 years. It will be a close call whether it is for the better or the worse, but it will definitely be one heck of a ride!
Nisha Ramchandani is the principal author of 'The Future of Work' series.
Published Date: May 24, 2019 06:05 AM | Updated Date: May 24, 2019 05:05 PM IST