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The future of work? Over-prepared for yesterday’s threat, and under-prepared for tomorrow’s?

15 May 2020
Misty Mt Cook

Are humans destined to be over-prepared for yesterday’s existential threat, and under-prepared for tomorrow’s? In this post I reflect on a year spent gazing into a crystal ball over how best to prepare for the “future of work”, only to have our analysis gazumped from an unexpected quarter.

On Monday the Productivity Commission’s final report on Technological change and the future of work was tabled in Parliament. While tabling is the final formal step of the inquiry, the report was completed on 31 March – just in time for you know what!

World-wide interest in tech change and its impact on work has plummeted, as you can see in this graph of trends in web searches for “automation” over the past 15 months.

Google trends automation

The threat to work as we knew it from robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and other automation technologies seemed real and imminent to many people back in early 2019. But it is most definitely on the backburner now!

Threats abound

There is certain irony in finding that a January 2019 survey of Americans rated both the probability and impact of infectious disease spread more highly than they did the harmful consequences of AI.

Survey of Americans

That said, the Americans surveyed rated both pandemics and the robopocalypse as less likely, and with lower impact, than a slew of other threats, including natural disasters, water crises, cyber-attacks and extreme weather events.

Preparing for every possible threat

Even if you could anticipate every threat, the costs of preparation may outweigh the benefits. This invites a mountaineering analogy. There is a piece of safety gear that might help manage every hazard. But pack them all and you – and your overstuffed pack – may never leave the car park! Or you risk straining your back on the first hill. Travelling light, by comparison, is a joy. And being able to move quickly offers a different form of safety – that of easily changing your plans should the terrain, weather or snow conditions be more hazardous than expected. 

Mt Cook

My take outs

  • We, individually or collectively, cannot identify every possible threat. There will always be “unknown unknowns”.
  • Just because a threat could happen, does not mean it will. And as we said in our future of work report, we cannot accurately predict the future.
  • Resources are, and always will be, limited. So, no-one can fully prepare for every possibility. And the cost of trying to do so may be unacceptably high. It might be better to be nimble.

The pandemic-economics team will be posting some insights from the Tech change and future of work inquiry for the post-COVID economy in the coming weeks. As for me, this is my last post for a fortnight. I’m taking advantage of alert level 2 to head to the South Island mountains!

Zhang, B., & Dafoe, A. (2019). Artificial intelligence: American attitudes and trends. Center for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

Photos: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park by Dave Heatley & Sue Rundle.

Have your say

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  • Gravatar for Boomer

    Boomer 27/05/2020, 11:34 am (4 years ago)

    Given the collective unwillingness to face global resource limitation issues such as climate disruption, I can only conclude that short-term vested interests, the gutlessness of politicians, and public apathy condemns future generations to a far less prosperous and secure world.

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  • Gravatar for Pat Hoffmann

    Pat Hoffmann 22/05/2020, 8:52 am (4 years ago)

    Thanks for this interesting article, Dave. Please help me understand why "world-wide interest in tech change and its impact on work has plummeted". I would have thought that the pandemic and consequent requirements for social distancing and working at home etc would have stimulated interest in automating jobs that people would normally do.

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    • Gravatar for DAVE HEATLEY

      DAVE HEATLEY 2/06/2020, 8:35 am (4 years ago)

      Great question Pat. I was interpreting web searches for "automation" as a proxy for concern over the automation of existing jobs. But, as you correctly point out, this measure also captures a second category of searches - by businesses seeking automation technology. So, while the total number of searches has plummeted, it is indeed possible that those in the second category have increased.

      Have you any suggestions about how to disaggregate the two categories?

  • Gravatar for Westt

    Westt 21/05/2020, 11:37 am (4 years ago)

    As a society then, what would you recommend when going climbing and there are reports of a storm blowing in. Would you focus on previous experiences, or on carrying an extra bit of kit, or how things could look to the short/medium future, although you don't know for sure. There is some uncertainty there, but are you able to make some rational assessment of the risk/future.

    Please note that you should not rely on others/tax-payers baling you out if things don't go as you anticipated.

    Good luck


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    • Gravatar for DAVE HEATLEY

      DAVE HEATLEY 2/06/2020, 9:47 am (4 years ago)

      Thanks Tom. As you say, decision making over activities with personal risk is complex. Looking back over 40+ years of outdoor activities, and a few close shaves, I believe I have got better over time at differentiating between subjective and objective risks, and managing the latter more carefully. But I might have been just lucky!

      When outdoor activities go wrong, they create social as well as personal costs. (They are not alone in this - team sports and home DIY are other examples.) Societal choices around such activities varies considerably, from an outright ban on BASE jumping from buildings, to encouraging (and even subsidising) yachting.

      At a personal level, I take steps to reduce the social costs of my outdoor activities. This includes (1) being careful; (2) carrying a personal locator beacon (as I know that the costs of searching far exceed those of rescuing); and (3) being a volunteer member of land search and rescue.

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