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Putting the ‘bots’ in Botswana?

Publishing Date : 09 July, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White


A recent article had me reminiscing about my childhood and what jobs have disappeared since then and this subject of vanishing work functions and future careers re-emerged this week when I was interviewed about the future world of work – what it will look like and how, therefore,  HR managers should be preparing in anticipation.


It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution because it is the fourth major workplace and job function realignment since the original  industrial revolution of the 18th Century. It is characterized by a fast-moving fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, collectively referred to as cyber-physical systems. Because of technology, its advances and the speed of it and how it affects us in every way, these disruptive technologies and trends such as the internet, virtual reality, artificial intelligence etc. will and are changing the way that we live and work.


This has many implications for HR Managers and indeed for people interested in what and how we will utilise humans in the future. The most immediate and obvious impact is that millions of jobs which will simply disappear as organisations decide which processes to automate and which human functions to replace with robots.  We have moved on from the scaremongering of the 80s and 90s which prophesied that computers would take over the world and make us all redundant. Such a reversal of roles is a quantum leap of reality and those sceptics were always rebuffed with the reassurance that there will always be jobs for humans and while that’s true the pertinent question remains, which ones?


As it gathers momentum how does one prepare for the 4th industrial revolution of data analytics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing etc. New jobs are being created - I can think of several such as app developer and social media marketer - and there is a hoard of the very familiar jobs disappearing. This became especially apparent when I was in Europe recently. We were planning a big trip the following day and wanted to fill up the car with petrol rather than attend to it in the morning.


So, at 10pm I went to the petrol station where the entire process and transaction took place without any human interaction:  no petrol attendant, no cashier, no security. I was struck by its simplicity (and retrospectively how quick it all is if you take people out of the mix). The other incident happened the following day when I wanted to use a public toilet, but found it was closed for cleaning. The sign on the door said this would take approximately 20 minutes. What was interesting was that the toilet cleaned itself.


It went into lock down mode and in a process which I guess is like a washing machine, it gives itself a good hose down and disinfect and then through fans and heaters it dries and voilà, it’s open for business again. A ‘Wow’ for me but, self-cleaning public toilets are already a common sight in European cities.


It is obvious that most manual labour and unskilled jobs will disappear – many are already  gone from  agriculture and manufacturing, more so by the day. Earthbound Farms in California has robot arms that put organic lettuce into clamshell containers. They are so fast that each robot replaces two to five workers at the company.Boeing uses giant machines to make its wide-body commercial jets, finding them more precise and safer than human  workers. Royal Philips Electronics, which manufactures electric shavers more complex to make than smartphones, uses robots encased in glass cages on top of which are perched video cameras.  And the list goes on.


Then there are jobs which just cant justify an additional human component on the chain as they have been replaced by the ease of self-service, causing disruptive changes in the market – think travel agents (as people do their own flight and hotel bookings) and secretaries (as managers handle our own mail, appointments etc), postal delivery, bank teller, the list goes on.  


What we know for certain is that if technology can manage a process more efficiently than we can,  then the tech option will be adopted and that job will fall away which leaves us to deploy humans to jobs which computers can’t (and that’s why artificial intelligence is so scary and why we have movies that even postulate a scenario where you can have a relationship with a computer). Science fiction stuff, you may say, but when I see how addicted to their smart phones people are, Facebook and Snap chat I am thinking that anything is possible.


There is even the story of Senji Nakajima, who claims he enjoys the 'perfect' relationship with 'Saori' a blow up doll - even taking the dummy out shopping to buy it fancy outfits - despite the fact that he is married to a woman with whom he has two children. Senji, 61, from Nagano, lives with his life-size doll in his apartment in Tokyo where he enjoys a physical relationship with it - but he claims he is happy because his plastic companion isn't 'after only money'. Based on that don’t rule out a digital relationship!


The best way to predict where the future lies is to see trends which can act as a sign of where we are going and then adapt our world of work and education to that future. It’s almost certain that jobs in the green environmental sectors will be huge, the mental health field has exploded – once a territory ringfenced for psychiatrists and psychologists we are seeing the need for mental health counsellors in a range of organisations.  When it comes to education, we need to overhaul it completely.


Our current system spends so much time and effort into teaching children how to answer questions instead of how to ask questions (and computers are lousy at asking questions). Problem solving and critical thinking skills will be the skills in most demand...and then adding judgment into the mix (computers are also lousy a prioritising and determining what’s important).


As remote and flexible workers will become more commonplace  there is a need to teach students true team working so that they will be adaptable and cooperative enough to work in multi-disciplinary teams where there is less familiarity within the team members and often cultural differences which means that an advanced level of inter-personal skills and cooperativeness is required in order to be effective and accepted – in other words being on your best behaviours – which currently many employees don’t bother about in their all too comfortable job and familiar  team environment (not sure a computer can do that either!).


What this all boils down to is that for now and far into the future, machines and robots work for and on behalf of mankind, not the other way round, relieving their human masters and mistresses of menial or repetitive tasks, freeing up humans for critical-thinking functions.  And let’s face it, no-one wakes up one day and decides that what they really want to do in life is clean lavatories!

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