You can't use the past to predict the future

Automation has already arrived in manufacturing, but along with artificial intelligence will soon spread to other industries. Photo: Getty

Will robots steal our jobs? How will we earn money, and will businesses survive the looming technological changes that will transform our economy forever? Shane Cowlishaw heads to a conference on the future of work to find out.

It is the year 2070.

Three-quarters of the New Zealand workforce are no longer employed.

Machines and automation have taken over, doing most of the jobs that people once believed would be theirs for a lifetime.

But those former workers are not unhappy. They have more time to dedicate to the arts and music, to volunteer, or to paint the deck for summer.

It’s a scenario painted by software developer Sam Jarman, the first speaker at the Wellington Work in Progress conference.

In the next 30 years, Jarman said, a conservative estimate is that 30-40 percent of current jobs will disappear, with more going over the following decades.

Just how the world deals with such massive change is a huge question.

One potential outcome is a universal basic income (UBI) provided to all citizens, possibly paid for by taxing the robots that have taken our jobs.

Bartering could even make a comeback as money becomes less important, replaced by a single global currency.

Getting to this utopian landscape will present one of the greatest challenges faced by modern civilisation.

The Government will have a central role to play and will have to embrace a proactive approach over treading water, but Jarman also urges individuals to prepare for the upcoming disruption.

“The economy is going to have its biggest challenge and change over the next 50 years...you don’t have to be a able to predict this stuff but your business does need to be ready.

“You don't need to predict, but you do need to react. Don’t be the Blockbuster...don’t be the Sky TVs of next year. Be ready.”

This looming change to our economy and workforce will likely be high on the new Government’s agenda.

Whilst in opposition, Labour completed an initial piece of research on the Future of Work led by now-Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

It grabbed headlines for its claim that half of New Zealand jobs would disappear in the next 10-15 years, but also made 63 recommendations of how to deal with the change around education and access to technology.

The report was received reasonably well, aside from some murmurs about the UBI that Labour quickly clarified required more work.

How urgent this preparation is was hammered home again and again by speakers at the conference.

Attendees were left somewhat stunned as they were repeatedly blasted with astonishing facts and figures about what was to come.

Kaila Colbin, who amongst her many roles is the curator of TEDxChristchurch and the New Zealand ambassador for Singularity University, perhaps highlighted our changing society perfectly by addressing the crowd via a pre-recorded video presentation.

She told the audience there would be huge opportunities that came with such massive change, but also a fair amount of terror as the disruption made jobs obsolete in a transition that would likely be messy.

Colbin believes most people have yet to grasp the sheer rate of change that is about to happen - that has, in fact, already begun.

For example, the current amount of computational speed available to people for $1000 was about equal to the level of a mouse’s brain. In the next five years that equation would have risen to the level of a human brain and by 2029 it would be the same as all human brains combined.

She also spoke of LED technology having made indoor farming a viable option and apple-picking robots that worked 24 hours and day and “never get sick, never need a visa”.

While factory workers being replaced by automation had been happening for decades, technology is now starting to encroach on professions such as lawyers, teaching assistants, and even doctors.

A chatbot built by a British 19-year-old had helped get thousands of people out of parking tickets and this was only the beginning, she said.

“If we can have way better (medical) diagnostics wouldn’t we want it? That chatbot that was getting people off parking tickets is now helping refugees claim asylum.

“We can no longer use the past as a means to predict the future.”