You’re a mobile, data-driven, hyper-connected worker — doing things that weren’t possible even a few years ago. But don’t expect the pace of change to slow anytime soon.
In fact, warns the futurist Gerd Leonhard, workers and business leaders should prepare for a whirlwind of upheavals — as AI, speech recognition, quantum computing, and other emerging technologies transform the very nature of how we work, collaborate, and create.
“I think the bottom line,” he said, “is that computers, machines, software and AI will replace any job that is about routine and robotic tasks.”
As dire as that sounds for many workers, Leonhard — the author of Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash Between Man and Machine — sees great opportunities.
“I don’t think that the end of routine means the end of jobs,” he clarified. “I think it just means the end of routine. So, in other words, we can let go of these routines and move up the food chain to create more value.”
That is, he’s quick to add, if leaders in business, politics, education, and technology manage change in the right way.
“Any smart company,” he said, “would not just fire everyone when they can replace them with machines, but move them to more value-adding jobs ... If the goal is to spread the power of technology and the benefits across society and create new jobs and new positions and reinvest, then we can do that.”
For the most part, Leonhard fears, we are falling short of that goal. To start, he believes we must move from rote learning to developing the qualities that will separate humans from machines, whether in education or workplace culture.
“We need in the future to focus on the human only-skills,” he stressed. “Mostly emotional intelligence. This is right now a number one desired capability in HR. And we need to teach it to our kids. That includes intelligence to create, to imagine, to tell a story.”
Preparing for these changes, Leonhard believes, is also the smart, competitive thing to do.
“People look at technology,” he explained, “and say wow, instead of having people do this, we can have AI or whatever. And that is a very short-term view because in five or 10 years every single company will have that technology. So, you end up being a commodity. But the thing that makes it a real company that has values and purpose and meaning is the people that work in it.”
The Floating, Fluid, Future Team
As technology change upends the very foundation of how we work, expect teams to be dynamic and fluid, management less hierarchical, and collaboration constant. (Cisco's Future of Work research supports this conclusion.)
“I believe that the future is about wide-scale collaboration,” Leonhard said, “working on missions rather than for jobs and for necessarily one company.”
For some, that will mean adapting to a gig economy. That won’t be without its pain points, especially if we allow what Leonhard has called “digital Darwinism.”
“That’s a trend but we’ll have to figure out how to handle it socially,” he cautioned, “and how to tie people into the system without everybody fighting on their own. That is a very large challenge.”
The accelerating speed of technology change is driving these trends. Internal teams simply can’t meet all the demands.
“Nano science, energy science, quantum computing, you name it,” he explained, “it’s all happening at the same time. So how can you keep up as a company if you want to keep it all inside? That is going to be very tough even for the biggest, most powerful company. It’s going to be a networked economy, an ecosystem.”
That ecosystem approach could eventually reshape the very definition of a company.
“When you have an ecosystem,” Leonhard added, “sometimes you have to stand back and then the system gets the benefit, not just one player in the system. And that’s a fundamental change in ownership, in [intellectual property], in the entire company structure. It requires a fast-moving environment with people who are networked rather than centralized.”
IT Ups Its EQ
One area where this shift in skills will be critical is IT, especially as they step up to driving business outcomes, creating innovative new customer experiences, and using data in competitive new ways.
“When you have drones and robots and AI it’s a self-running system to a very large degree,” Leonhard predicted. “Then it comes down to a higher order of jobs for people who deal with the machines. I think there’s a huge shift from this idea of an engineering society, building things, making things work and IT, to this idea of the experience society.”
For IT teams used to configuring and maintaining devices, empathy, design, and communication skills will take on ever-greater importance.
“That’s going to change all of IT,” he said. “It’s going to be much more about the human design than about figuring out how it works, because how it works will be something that just happens, more or less.”
However, once IT combines its expanded knowledge of emerging technologies with creativity and “soft skills,” it will establish a greater level of importance to the organization.
“The future of IT looks pretty bright because it will be everywhere quite literally,” he said. “But try to avoid the commodity factor of building something that becomes essentially like air or like water. Try to find the unique way of dressing it up and adding value.”
Emerging Technologies — Emerged
None of these big changes are quite here, Leonhard qualified.
“We don't have 100 percent language translation,” he said. “The Internet of Things is limping along but getting better. AI most of the time is just fancy software. It’s not really thinking machines.”
But that’s all poised to change, Leonhard added. So fasten your seatbelts.
“In the next five years,” he said, “those hurdles are falling away.”
Among the first of those technology changes in the workplace will come from speech recognition software, especially when combined with AI and Internet of Things data (and eventually quantum computing, with its nearly boundless bandwidth and processing power).
“We are at the cusp of a whole natural user interface,” he said, “talking to machines. That is going to mean that we don’t type anymore, we just speak. We can talk to machines as if they were servants. And that is going to change everything. Mostly to the good, I think, even though it may be confusing for us as humans.”
The more those machines “think,” talk, and do, the more our work lives will change.
“In 10 years,” he added, “the question of if it works will be replaced by the question of why we are doing this. And who’s going to benefit, and who will control it.”
Moreover, he adds, “most jobs in ten years haven’t even been invented yet.”
Navigating these changes successfully — creating a future of creative, fulfilled workers or one of mass displacement by machines — will demand societal will.
“We can live in this machine nirvana,” Leonhard concluded. “Or nightmare, depending on how we decide. But I think it’s mostly good. The technology is neutral. We have to make it do the right thing. These decisions are political, cultural, social.”