We have spent much of the past decade obsessing about the future of work, and the current pandemic has prompted many to assert that the “future is finally here”. Chronologically, this is factually correct: the present was once the future. Philosophically, we can debate whether the changes we are seeing now are indeed the crystallization of accurate predictions, let alone real changes. The clichéd assertion that the pandemic has accelerated everything that was already there to begin with seems suspiciously self-serving. A sort of “I told you so” that exhibits all the characteristics of confirmation bias. We seem to look for trends like the drunkard who searches for his keys under the lamppost: not because that’s where he lost them, but because that’s the only place where he can see.
To be sure, one of the problems with predicting the future is that nobody has any data on it, so the best we can do is guess, make stuff up, and hope that people will pay some attention, remember our guesses, and forget our misses. More often than not, future predictions are an attempt to make sense of the present, but they can also distract us from solving the real problems we face today. In that sense, the best prediction is one which results in some form of action. An action that helps us create a better future by addressing the big problems of the present.
One of the big problems we face today is the potential dehumanization of work, a trend that may actually suppress (rather than accelerate) recent efforts to improve the employee experience and enable workers to construct a more meaningful relationship with their work, including purposeful careers rich in learning opportunities, and the potential to develop their human and humane qualities, such as creativity, curiosity, empathy, and integrity. Cynics may argue that this quest for the spiritual workaholic was perhaps just PR… a recruitment strategy designed to seduce the narcissistic aspirations of an otherwise disenchanted workforce. Even if this is true, we can now see the emergence of a much darker reality casting Orwellian shadows over our work and careers. This dystopian reality has revitalized fears of alienated workers oppressed by technocratic surveillance and algorithmic capitalism.
Clearly, there is no stopping technology from playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives and careers, but this doesn’t mean undermining the human aspect of work, or making work less humane. The big impact of the pandemic is not so much the advancement of technology, but the removal of human-to-human interaction, which no Zoom or Virtual Reality can fully replicate. Not so long ago our main concern was whether AI would automate humans; our main concern today should be to stop humans from behaving like AI. When you sterilize the personal touch from work, our natural proclivity is to turn into productive machines. We can, thanks to technology, self-optimize our working lives so as to minimize time wasting, boost efficiencies and productivity, which would turn us into a more predictable and soulless species. This is the way AI would want it. We already spend much of our working lives training algorithms, but there should be more to our selves than that which can be automated.The Importance Of ‘Agility’ In The Future Of Work
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Fortunately, there is no need to wait for any technological developments to make work better, as the solution to the problem is human rather than artificial intelligence. Empathy, honesty, trust, and compassion are the key ingredients for a better tomorrow, and a better today. They are the only attributes capable of turning artificial intelligence into a genuine human ally, capable of augmenting rather than downgrading our humanity, and we surely have every incentive to avoid any of he far bleaker alternatives.