What will we do when machines do everything?

An evening co-hosted by the Financial Times and CIPD on the 19th June 2017 explored what will we do when machines do everything?" and “what are humans good at?”. Convened by FT Innovation Editor, John Thornhill, contributions came from Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, Margaret Heffernan, author of Wilful Blindness, plus FT correspondents Sarah O’Connor (employment) and Robin Kwong, with an update from Silicon Valley.

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  1. John Thornhill welcomed the crowd of 100 participants with introductions and scene setting between two schools of thought: On one side we have those who claim we have unprecedented exponential change, a productivity revolution, nearing "The Singularity". On the other, critics claim innovation isn’t what it used to be. We aren't seeing life-changing technologies on par with the birth of electricity. Bring on the robots we have record levels of employment. So how significant are current changes and how much will they impact on the way we live and work?
  2. Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD opened proceedings with his thoughts. We're at an inflection point. We can debate the pace of change, but it is irrefutable that Moore’s Law continues to play out. We are seeing a displacement of jobs and we need to prepare. However, those skills we've had the longest will be the hardest to replicate and very "human" skills such as emotional intelligence; empathy creativity that will sustain us for the long-term.
  3. Sarah O'Connor, The FT's Employment Correspondent thinks that while there is a lot of rhetoric about the fourth industrial revolution, we might need to take a reality check. In fact, only one job category has disappeared from U.S since 1960: elevator operator. Yes, we are at an inflection point – but we have been through many such points (e.g. the invention of the computer) and survived. For some jobs, AI can be positive. AI displaces the dull bits. The parts of the brain that can’t be replicated by robots are the ones we enjoy using. The danger is outside of the knowledge economy. Motor skills are famously hard to replicate and there is a fear that jobs could get more routinised and miserable – it is cheaper to pay people to pick things off shelves than make robots that can do the same
  4. Robin Kwong, Special Projects Editor for the FT, who recently spent three months in Silicon Valley warned that mavericks without mouths to feed (and salaries to pay) can significantly disrupt industries such as legal and accountancy with technology but that many workers see NAFTA as more of a threat to their jobs than the robots making it "easier".
  5. Margaret Heffernan, Author of Wilful Blindness and A Bigger Prize thinks that we have been treating humans at work like widgets for so long now that to start using actual widgets instead seems like a smooth transition. But when it comes to giving our power of decision-making over to algorithms we need to be sure we have thought deeply about those choices and their meaning.
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