Our latest strategic foresight publication, “Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” explores how readiness for further learning, career and life might come to be redefined as work changes in the future. That forecast highlights how the rise of smart machines will lead to significant changes to how work is organized and how we complete work tasks. We define the rise of smart machines as the advancement and proliferation of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and other forms of automation that are increasingly able to carry out tasks that people perform today.
When I ponder this driver of change, I find that I have mixed feelings about how the rise of smart machines might play out for the future of work. On one hand, reflecting on the long arc of history, technology has played a key role in making work better for the vast majority of people. Technological advancement has helped to automate and reshape work, historically making work safer and less boring by automating or making more efficient repetitive and dangerous tasks. As smart machines continue to advance and proliferate throughout the workplace, this historic pattern gives me hope that the future of work might be one that encourages people to bring their humanity to the workplace and that eliminates more highly repetitive or dangerous tasks.
On the other hand, the rise of smart machines reflects a broader trend that gives me trepidation. Because the rise of smart machines is altering our dominant production paradigm, it represents a paradigm-shifting innovation. Such large-scale innovations in the past include the application of iron, steam, coal and computers to human production. As time goes by, the time between such major applications has gotten shorter and shorter. For example, the time between the second and third Industrial Revolutions was roughly 100 years, but the time between the third and fourth Industrial Revolutions was around fifty years. Zooming further out, the time between the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages was in the thousands of years.
This acceleration of innovation has allowed humanity to enjoy near open-ended growth in our population, our quality of life and our economies. Unbounded growth cannot be sustained without such innovations or access to infinite resources. Since we don’t have the latter, each paradigm-shifting innovation sidestepped the issue of potential collapse. This is where my trepidation comes in: in order to continue to enjoy continuous, open-ended growth, we must not only continue to generate paradigm-shifting innovations; we must do so at ever-faster rates. To put it another way, we have become addicted to innovation to sustain wealth creation and fuel our social systems. If left unchecked, this addiction may ultimately lead to collapse.
There is no quick-fix solution to this dilemma. It is a solution that will require generations and involve reframing core assumptions such as how we define success and value. In the near-term, we can expect the rate of change to continue to increase. Education must prepare learners for a world of work where paradigm-shifting innovations come faster and faster, changing the way work is completed. Looking longer term, we need to prepare ourselves for recovery from our innovation addition. Educators needs to begin fostering a dialogue with learners about how they define success and value so as to sow the seeds of deep change before the accelerating rate of change runs out of paradigm-shifting fuel and leads to collapse.