Data science and digital coding could soon be the new English

In a news cycle dominated by the coronavirus and the Afghanistan tragedy, most of us would have missed a report quietly released by the World Economic Forum Called ‘The Future of Jobs’(https://bit.ly/2UsgjvU)., it will have implications as profound. In my work in technology in general, and Artificial Intelligence in particular, the two questions asked most often are: Will AI and robots become our masters, and will AI and technology take our jobs? Let us leave the first question for another day, the WEF report addresses in detail the second one.

The obvious difference in this report, as opposed to the earlier ones, is that the technology impact on jobs is now layered with the impact of another big phenomenon: the COVID pandemic. Many of us dismiss the pandemic as a one-off, random occurrence that will have a point impact, not a lasting one. I disagree – COVID is perhaps the beginning of a series of mega-disruptions. Many of us think of the pandemic as a Black Swan event, what Nassem Taleb described as both disruptive and unpredictable. However, Taleb himself refuses to characterise the COVID pandemic as a Black Swan – according to him, the event, though very disruptive, was highly predictable. I believe that while the pandemic might not be a Black Swan event, the ensuing lockdowns certainly are. The lockdowns are the ones which disrupted everything, including work. And, while the pandemic may come and go in a few years, an eye-blink in the history of the planet, there will be other such cataclysmic events which will cause similar unanticipated disruptions – global warming related, natural calamities, and man-made ones like the Afghan war.

Thus, says WEF, “automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers. 43% of businesses surveyed indicate that they are set to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, 41% plan to expand their use of contractors for task-specialized work, and 34% plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration. By 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal.’. The last sentence is a shocker – in 2020 humans did two-thirds of work, machines one-third; just five years hence in 2025, the human-machine divide will be nearly equal! There are some alarming predictions: job creation is slowing, while job destruction accelerates. A sigh of relief might escape you when you read that “85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.” So, humans still hold an edge, albeit a narrow one. But the pace of job destruction is more than that of creation, so job destruction is front loaded – we will see more jobs lost, before new jobs appear.

The other key phrase here is ‘the division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.’ While COVID and other macro factors are impacting job, perhaps the greatest impact force is technology. “The pace of technology adoption is expected to remain unabated and may accelerate in some areas”, the report declares. “The adoption of cloud computing, big data and e-commerce remain high priorities for business leaders, (and) there has also been a significant rise in interest for encryption, non-humanoid robots and artificial intelligence.”

 

The COVID Paradox, where ‘the pandemic slowed down the world, but accelerated change’ has sprayed jet fuel on this, and the future of work is no longer imminent, but has already arrived.  If this is so, then what are the jobs of the future, or rather the present? I usually refer to Kai Fu Lee, the acclaimed AI thinker and practitioner who has explained this wonderfully well. His famous matrix has optimization-to-strategy on one axis, and no compassion-to-full compassion on another. High optimization – low compassion jobs (like telesales, customer support, dishwashing, radiologist, truck driver, etc.) will be the first to go and high compassion- jobs like CEO, M&A expert, teacher, elderly care worker, etc. will be last. The jobs which will always be there for humans will have the need for communications skills, empathy, compassion, trust, creativity, and reasoning. He has created a ‘cheat sheet’ of ten jobs in his book; some of them are: AI-related research and engineering, psychiatry and medical care, teaching, computer science and engineering, science, and management. The WEF has also created its own version of this cheat sheet, detailed for most major economies. In the global list, technology jobs dominate – Data Scientists, AI and Machine Learning specialists,  digital transformation experts, digital marketers, IoT, robotics, cybersecurity. Data entry, administrative, door to door sales, financial analysts and a score other jobs go away.

As technology muscles into our lives, jobs that enable humans to manage it will become dominant. In India, for generations, the knowledge of English was the passport for the best jobs, and the wish of every parent was that her child masters this magic language. Perhaps, soon, it will be data science and IT and digital – will coding become the new English?