The future of work? Over-prepared for yesterday’s threat, and under-prepared for tomorrow’s?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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. https://governanceai.github.io/US-Public-Opinion-Report-Jan-2019/index.html
Photos: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park by Dave Heatley & Sue Rundle.