Will new technologies put us out of work? A peek into the future

Rather than fretting about the possibility of technology taking our jobs, history shows we would be better served preparing for change

Will new technologies put us out of work?
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Over the past year, questions about how emerging technologies will impact employment have taken on a new tenor. Will robots take over our jobs? One thing is indisputable: automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will displace workers in the IT and business process outsourcing services industry.

But this is not a new trend.

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Such tectonic shifts have occurred every few decades over the last two centuries. With each wave of new technology and each accompanying paradigm shift, jobs have disappeared. During the Industrial Revolution, people feared the loss of farm jobs. When industrial jobs went away, people flocked to the service sector. Then computers, telecom networks, ATMs and the internet made their way into the world, and people feared massive job loss in this sector. Manufacturing work moved to low-cost countries, such as China and Taiwan, and service-sector jobs soon moved to India and the Philippines.

Have each of these trends led to job losses? The answer is a resounding yes. But each trend equally resulted in the creation of new jobs. Time and again, the adoption of technological advancements have left economies more prosperous, with higher levels of productivity and improved standards of living. Since its inception, the global Gross Domestic Product has been on the rise.

But this version of the story begs another question. Have these trends benefited all economies and individuals the same? No. The benefits have been disproportionately realized by countries economically savvy enough to adjust their policies to the changing times. No one can argue that this happened without varying impact on individuals and families.

Now, the big question: Will anything be different this time with the onset of automation and cognitive computing?

A trend we've seen before

I think this is a case of history repeating itself. While many lower-skilled jobs will disappear, scores of new jobs will be created to maintain machines, update software and write new technology. As people become more prosperous, they will spend more dollars on personal services, entertainment and treating lifestyle diseases and stress disorders.

Until a few years ago, who would have imagined the world would need data scientists by the truckload? Who could have predicted that India would become the third-largest startup economy in the world with more than 5,000 startups? Who would have guessed that we would need thousands of delivery professionals fulfilling online business-to-consumer orders?

Of course, people employed in positions most at risk from technological disruption should be forewarned by the lessons of history. The advance of technology is like a tsunami that’s unstoppable. Smart countries, companies and individuals will plan ahead to deal with the effect of flooding rather than wasting time averting the trend.

They may need to consider doing something completely different, moving up the food chain or starting a new venture. The world is not coming to an end. It is simply going through another steep rise on the productivity curve.

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