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The future of work

The dog days of summer are waning, pools are closing, and parents are taking a deep breath as they get to send their kids back to school. It’s Labor Day. But Labor Day is about more than a last hurrah before getting back to work after a summer of fun. Established by the labor movement, it is an annual national tribute to the contributions workers have made throughout history to the well-being and economic strength of the United States.

As we mark the achievements of the past, Labor Day also represents an opportune time to pause and take a look at the future of work. In recent years, fears that with the rise of automation in today’s knowledge-based service society we will soon have to rename summer’s last holiday to “Robots Day” are being stoked. While the level of anxiety represents a novelty, automation has been around for a while, as have its critics. Thankfully, they have been proven wrong in the past. Chances are, they will be proven wrong again.

{mosads}Indeed, labor and the concept of work have undergone dramatic changes, not just since Americans first marked Labor Day in 1882 in New York City, but throughout history. From the introduction of agricultural technology over the machines that fueled the industrial revolution to personal computers and the Internet – each transformation of labor went hand in hand with fears about machines obliterating people. However, the sky never fell.

While in the late 1900s, the average American toiled twelve hours seven days a week to make ends meet – making it a whopping 84-hour work week – the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs today’s average work week at only 34.5 hours.

Much of this development is owed to automation in the manufacturing sector. The inception of the first moving assembly line by Ford in 1913 revolutionized the automobile industry, yielding greater efficiency, accuracy, and speed. As a result, production volume increased, pay went up, and prices dropped. All the while, employment rates kept steady. Over time, vehicle performance and safety increased. By the mid-20th century, the manufacturing sector had become a leader in the adoption of new technology.

Interestingly, in spite of the rise of the PC and the Internet, which enable us to live and work more productively with less input, manufacturing productivity has skyrocketed, while service sector productivity has stagnated. The automation of knowledge work and the services sector through artificial intelligence (AI) is thus the new frontier – but it is this logical next step in the industrialization process in particular that has artificial intelligence (AI) skeptics cry wolf again. For them, the new threat is not so much the machine, it’s the algorithms that are being used to complete cognitive tasks currently performed by white collar workers in fields like law and medicine.

The key word here, however, is “tasks,” as opposed to jobs. As a new OECD-commissioned report has pointed out, there is a tendency to significantly overestimate the risk for automation of jobs because skeptics assume “that whole occupations rather than single job-tasks are automated by technology.”

Certainly, repetitive, high-volume, data-intensive tasks can be assigned to automation tools. Sifting through big data sets and turning them into digestible narratives, helping businesses field customer questions more efficiently, providing understandable analytics, or recreating the in-store experience for customers online – these are just a few examples of what is feasible today. However, automation tools cannot function without guidance and oversight, and while a powerful tool in the appropriate context, not all processes can be automated. Ultimately, whole occupations are not replaced, but rather time and cost is saved and human capital is refocused towards different tasks. Meanwhile, time and cost savings can increase output which in turn can fuel demand for labor.

Undoubtedly, we have reached a point in time when artificial intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction novels. The concepts of labor and work are changing, but they have been for millennia, and will continue to do so. Throughout history, each transformation of labor came with challenges, but also brought new opportunities. The automation trend in the knowledge society is no different – we will rise to the challenge, and Labor Day will continue to be celebrated by humans, not robots.   

Arden Manning is the Senior Vice President at Yseop ( an enterprise software company that provides an Artificial Intelligence platform which allows customers to develop AI applications autonomously. He is a recognized speaker and expert on the intersection between technology, business and the work place of the future. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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