• Automation
  • E.P.M. Vermeulen
  • FEB 15, 2018

We Aren’t Prepared for an Automated Future

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3 Skills for Succeeding in a New World of Smart Machines

Picture on a banner of PwC’s digital campaign at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands

Millennials and smart machines are building our future.

Yet, recently, I have noticed something interesting about Millennial students.

Although they don’t want lifetime employment (working at one company for life), they are often still attracted by what we would consider “traditional” careers (think banking, accounting, consulting, lawyering, etc.).

They may have grown up in a world of interconnected, digital technologies and effortless access to information, but they haven’t always thought about the broader application, effects and implications of these new technologies.

In particular, they haven’t thought about how these traditional careers are being disrupted by technological developments.

How will these jobs be further transformed by the automation revolution?

Will these jobs still exist in their current form or even at all?

They haven’t considered how to prepare themselves for a new world of connected, intelligent machines.

Clearly, many new technologies are still in their infancy. But all of us — and the next generation, in particular — cannot afford to be complacent about their impact.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic.

Whenever, I introduce Millennials to the broader questions about the new world of artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, blockchain and ICOs, they immediately see the opportunities and challenges.

They ask questions. They want to know more. They want to understand what this means for their (and our) future. I experienced this again during an intensive seminar on “disruptive innovation” in Minneapolis last week.

But is enthusiasm and curiosity enough?

In order to come up with the creative solutions that are necessary to succeed in an automated world, the next generation must broaden their understanding of the impact of such technologies and develop a new set of skills.

What is Automation?

We live in a world that is increasingly governed and controlled by algorithms, software, sensors, connectivity and data. These technological developments are driving a profound economic, social and cultural shift.

Most of the current discussion is on the automation of work.

Manual and knowledge work will be increasingly performed by smart and connected machines.

Standardized procedures will be automated. Of course, we aren’t there yet. For instance, driverless cars and drone delivery systems still have some way to go. But if you track the technological developments in these areas, it is clear that this change is coming.

But there is so much more to the automation revolution than robots performing standardized tasks.

For example, with the emergence of companies, such as Uber and Airbnb, we are witnessing the automation of coordination.

Platform companies with just a few assets and a relatively low number of employees are disrupting the traditionally and hierarchically structured organizations by offering better “match-making” services than incumbents.

“Soon you’ll see huge companies with just two employees: the CEO and the CIO” John Chambers (former Executive Chairman and CEO of Cisco)

We can also see how these technologies facilitate the automation of trust.

And this is where things get really interesting.

Here, blockchain technology and smart contracts are changing the world by disrupting industries that depend on “intermediaries” (again, think bankers, accountants, consultants, lawyers). New technologies allow more direct and safer transactions between parties.

A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.” “Satoshi Nakamoto” in Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System

Even though the financial industry was initially targeted, these technologies have the potential to disrupt any traditional industry that uses “middlemen”.

A New “Skill-Set” for An Automated World

So, what more should be done to prepare for an automated future? Here are three skills that can help everyone better prepare for this new world.

1 — “Interfacing”

New technologies enable more direct forms of “peer-to-peer” transaction. Increasingly, such transactions are being automated.

But this doesn’t mean that intermediaries will entirely disappear.

Rather, the “job” of intermediaries will be transformed. Intermediaries will need to focus on facilitating these more direct forms of transaction. And this means focusing on user interface design.

The intermediary of the future will be an “interface designer” that operates in this new space between the human-user and connected, intelligent machines.

Take banking.

Whereas in the past, banks “represented” their clients and performed a transaction on their client’s behalf, the financial transactions of today (and the future) are increasingly being carried out between the parties themselves using a network of connected machines and a user interface provided by “intermediaries”.

A similar dynamic can be seen with emerging smart contracts. In an automated future, the role of the lawyers will no longer be to negotiate and draft a traditional agreement “for” the client, but to facilitate direct transactions between the parties. Here it should be noted that different users (with different expectations which are based on different datasets) will have a need for the design of different user interfaces.

Also, in a new world of “smarter” machines, there is a greater need for user-friendly interfaces that facilitate the effective operation of the machines by human users. Intermediaries “add value” not by how well they can represent a client in a transaction, but by providing and continuously testing the interface that makes the user experience as smooth as possible.

In a new world of “interfacing”, design and testing skills become vital.

2 — “Co-Creating”

It might be argued that designing user interfaces is a task that mainly falls on technologists. Certainly, technologists usually have a better understand of the possible applications of inter-connected technologies.

And, of course, implementing a particular design solution is, in large part, a software issue that requires coding skills.

Nevertheless, non-technologists still have a crucial role to play. When it is “done right”, the combination of technologists and non-technologists working together can be magical.

As I explained in an earlier post, we need more “odd couples” of technologists and non-technologists co-creating together to deliver applications to the market that offer a meaningful experience to a broader audience. This is the most effective way to add value for business and for consumers across the board.

There are many examples of these creative partnerships between the two worlds of technology and business that have always been crucial in the success of tech companies.

The automation revolution means that everyone needs to embrace this style of cooperation.

3 — “Profiling”

Lifetime employment is no longer feasible or even desirable in an automated world. It is widely acknowledged that automation will lead to an increase in the number of freelance workers.

In order for this “gig economy” to work, there needs to be a greater emphasis on “profiling” (on the side of both workers and organizations).

Remember that reputation and trust will be automated (with less emphasis on traditional intermediaries and brand reputation). This means that in order for workers and organizations to be attractive in peer-to-peer relationships, they must establish a strong profile, which is unique and personal.

A “profile” differs from a “brand” in that it is both an image and a reputational record.

By a reputational record, I mean an openly disclosed history of prior personal achievements that is open to constant review and valued by feedback loops (positive and negative) by users.

Clearly, social media, on-line publication and other new platforms are vital tools to help build and project a distinctive profile.

In this context (and as I have written before), the ability to “tell a story” (that makes sense of the available data) becomes a core skill.

The Key Takeaway

We should not be fooled by the stage of infancy in which many technologies exist today.

Nor should we be distracted by talk of “bubbles” or “hype” surrounding such technologies (think ICOs and cryptocurrencies).

Change is coming.

Instead, we all need to focus on expanding our understanding of the automation revolution and — based on that understanding — identify and develop the skills that will be necessary to survive and succeed in this new world.

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