The backlash against big tech threatens to drive a wedge between people, government and industry at a time when we need greater trust and smarter collaboration to prepare for the future of work, argues Elizabeth Vega
It’s often said that the future depends on what you do today. As we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally change the way we live and work, the decisions that we make today are critically important to our future success. The promise of a Digital Revolution, that harnesses the power of machines to improve human lives and create a global economic success story, will not be realised without vision and preparation. Unless we understand the urgency to act and show a deeper commitment to reskilling and upskilling millions of workers that are likely to be displaced by technological progress, we will lose a golden opportunity.
Change is going to be forced upon us fast and it’s incumbent on government and industry to work together to make education and re-skilling accessible to everyone. Artificial Intelligence and robotic automation represent both incredible technological progress and also the most disruptive change to our way of life since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Lessons from that last Industrial Revolution need to be taken to heart.
At the dawn of the 18th century Industrial Revolution, we saw how government went into denial and education failed to keep pace with technological progress. It took a century for public policy to respond with universal access to schooling that could economically and socially benefit people in displaced jobs. This time, we can’t afford such a delay, nor can we allow up to 65% of our workforce to struggle or be left behind, as they try to adapt to a rapidly changing jobs marketplace.
"We’re going to need to completely rethink education to ensure people develop 21st century skills that increase their employability"
Tech can and should be a force for good and tech needs to be at the forefront of preparations for transitioning the workforce. Industry needs to work with government to develop the right skills infrastructure and contribute to effective public policy. We need a framework that combines the unique cognisant abilities of humans and compliments these with the efficient, tireless repetitive processing of machines. In this way, we can increase the quality of the human experience and lives; improve economic productivity; lower the cost and raise the standard of access to services; and harness the vast potential of the digital revolution. Upskilling people opens up new frontiers for more meaningful employment, banishing many of the worst types of backbreaking, repetitive jobs that have sent too many workers to an early grave and failed to provide dignified, fulfilling jobs.
We do not, however, have a century to devise a reskilling policy and effective education initiatives. The pace of change is not slowing. Schools and universities continue to prepare people for jobs that won’t exist within even 5 years, with research estimating that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in new jobs that don’t yet exist.
More broadly across the global economy, the McKinsey Global Institute argues that up to 375 million people may soon need to learn an entirely new occupation – and the new jobs will require different skills, that we’re currently not prioritising. Similarly, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020 more than a third of the core skills needed for most jobs aren’t even considered important skills today.
It is abundantly clear that we’re going to need to completely rethink education to ensure people develop 21st century skills that increase their employability. As with the 18th century Industrial Revolution, the equally big challenge is making education and re-skilling accessible to everyone: from children who want to explore what they are good at and enjoy doing, to adults whose jobs are displaced and current skills aren’t needed anymore. This new approach to reskilling and upskilling requires a comprehensive infrastructure for lifelong learning and innovative, agile curricula that adapt to the needs of an evolving future jobs marketplace. Every person, whether of working age or not, also needs foundation level digital skills, so we can ensure that they have the means to access the increasingly online public and private sector services that support their health, social and economic wellbeing.
"If tech is to remain a force for good then we all have a duty to reinvigorate our social mission"
Reassuringly, some countries are starting to make progress and I’m aware of a number of multi-stakeholder collaborations and pilots in the UK. For example, initiatives such as the National Retraining Scheme, Skills Advisory Panel and Local Digital Skills Partnerships focus on upskilling people in ways that deliver benefits and impact at scale, through collaboration and resource sharing.
However, we need to go further and faster – and this will only happen if our industry does more to build trust and confidence in the technology that we create, in the ethics and governance of tech businesses, and also in how we deliver against a responsible social mission. These topics too need to be incorporated into our education system and government policy because, as we well know, all tools and experts can use or misuse powerful capabilities.
Against this backdrop, a serious and nuanced conversation is developing around balancing ethical considerations and technological progress. Consequently, the UK has now set-up a Parliamentary Commission on Technology Ethics and also a new Data and Artificial Intelligence Ethics Unit. It’s becoming very clear, and in my view essential, that the ethics of technology must be subject to far greater scrutiny from now on.
This is our wakeup call and we should welcome it. If tech is to remain a force for good then we all have a duty to reinvigorate our social mission. The tech industry and government will quite rightly be judged very harshly if seen to economically benefit from technology whilst displacing millions of workers and failing to meaningfully benefit people. To balance the equation, we need to support and prepare displaced workers for the hugely disruptive and transformational changes in the jobs marketplace, and to deliver against a responsible social mission that also improves their lives.
Technology is borne of vision, the ability to re-imagine and create innovative solutions. No other sector has laid claim to owning the future as convincingly as the tech industry. If we’re going to successfully shape the large scale skills development initiatives that are needed, we need to summon our visionary spirit, ability to collaborate and create innovative solutions. The decisions and actions we take now can demonstrate convincingly how technology is genuinely a force for good, and how reskilling our workforce creates new job opportunities that are safer, more satisfying for people and more valuable.
This article is based on a speech given by the author at the recent AIIA Navigating Technology and Jobs of the Future Summit