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Futurework: How Technology Will Redefine the Culture of Work

What the future may bring to your work life

30 min read

Technological advances have put us on the edge of a new industrial revolution. In “Futurework,” we’ll explore how technology will redefine the culture of work.

Hosts Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and Susan Hassler, editor in chief of IEEE Spectrum magazine, are joined by engineers, scientists, and futurists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Rice University, and the Institute for the Future to give listeners insights into how technology will redefine work in the not too distant future.

Futurework: How Technology Will Redefine the Culture of Work


Susan Hassler: This is “Futurework,” how technology will redefine the culture of work. I’m Susan Hassler.

Robert Reich: And I’m Robert Reich. Today we look at what the future may bring to your work life.

Marina Gorbis: I think we’re increasingly going to be working with technology, and clearly some technologies are going to replace us. But also, technologies will enable us to do the kind of things that we were previously just not able to do.

Susan Hassler: What does the office of the future look like, and sound like?

Snackbot: Nice to meet you. I am Snackbot, your personal snack delivery robot. I will be delivering snacks to you for the next two months.

Robert Reich: And what kinds of jobs will be available 50 years from now?

Thomas Malone: Most people 50 or 100 years from now may be doing some kind of social interaction skills or writing poetry or some kind of intellectual game that we haven’t even invented yet.

Susan Hassler: Could a robot do your job?

Robert Reich: We’ll find out, after this news.

Susan Hassler: I’m Susan Hassler, and this is “Futurework,” a coproduction of the Directorate for Engineering of the National Science Foundation and IEEE Spectrum.

Robert Reich: And I’m Robert Reich.

Susan Hassler: For as long as there have been machines, people have been both awed and threatened by them.

Robert Reich: And futurists have been trying to predict how they will affect us.

Arthur C. Clarke: It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali, just as well as he could from London.

Susan Hassler: That’s science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. He’s predicting the development of the transistor and of the communication satellite for a British television program in 1964. But technologists were anticipating the machine age long before then.

Robert Reich: In the 1600s, famed chemist Robert Boyle predicted we’d master the art of flying, “perpetual light,” and the ability to cure...diseases at a distance.

Susan Hassler: By the 1700s, futurists were already speculating about robotics and artificial intelligence.

Robert Reich: And long before iPhones and tablets became the norm, philosophers played with the future concept of the technological singularity—the point at which machines become smarter than humans.

Susan Hassler: By the start of the Industrial Revolution, there was no doubt that modern machinery would forever change how we go about our daily lives.

Robert Reich: Especially in the workplace.

Susan Hassler: As editor of IEEE Spectrum, this topic hits close to home. We’re now looking at technologies that theoretically could replace some of our writers and editors. And their boss as well.

Robert Reich: Right—there are even computer programs that can string together a series of facts and grammatical rules to write a passably good news story.

Susan Hassler: And then there’s another program to copyedit and fact-check that passably good story. I’m not sure I’d welcome that. But Bob, as former president Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor and an economist, you’ve kept a close eye on the evolution of the workforce.

Robert Reich: Yes, and as professor of public policy at UC Berkeley I’ve been able to take the long view of how the changing economy is affecting today’s workers.

Susan Hassler: So here we are, at the dawn of what economists are calling the second machine age.

Robert Reich: A new technological revolution in which machines—computers, specifically—are doing not only much of our physical work, but our intellectual work as well.

Susan Hassler: And these computers are getting so smart, so fast, some predict they will completely displace humans in the workforce.

Voices of people on the street: I am a medical laboratory technologist.

I’m a writer.

I’m a registered nurse.

I’m an environmental engineer.

I’m a cashier at a little café.

Robert Reich: We asked people on the street: What’s your work?

Susan Hassler: And could a robot do your job?

Voices of people on the street: Some of what I do, yes. We already have a lot of automation in our laboratory as it is. We do use a lot of machines.

No, not yet, because somebody has to think before they write. I don’t think a robot could do it. I mean I use machines to—to write, but the idea of a machine being able to create, write things, doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, if there’s that, then there’s nothing left for humans to do because it’s about art and creativity. If—if machines do that, then what do people do?

I definitely feel like there’s going to be a lot more machines doing a lot of the work. In a way it’s nice because it’ll be more modern, but at the same time there’s not that emotional connection that you would have with people.

I don’t think there’s, you know, any robot or any computer that can hold hands with a patient and say I understand how you’re feeling and I understand your pain and I understand your sadness. When people are sick, they need the human touch as well as all the technology and the things that make them better.

Like, some of the mind-numbing things, potentially. Number crunching, it could probably do, which we have Excel spreadsheets that do for us already. I think I’ll still have a job. I don’t think I’ll be replaced. But the way things are going these days, well, you never know.

Susan Hassler: So, what does our future work look like?

Arthur C. Clarke: I’m perfectly serious when I suggest that one day we may have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes, the whole world will have shrunk to a point, and the traditional role of the city as a meeting place for man will have ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate.

Susan Hassler: More predictions from futurist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke back in 1964. Pretty remarkable.

Robert Reich: Definitely. But what about 50 years from now? We already live in a world of telecommuting, where remote work displaces the need for employees to be all in one place.

Susan Hassler: And we already interact with some pretty sophisticated technology on a regular basis: Siri, GPS, Google Glass, and even remote robotic surgery.

Robert Reich: So what are today’s futurists predicting?

Jodi Forlizzi: I think that some jobs will be made redundant by technology, but new jobs will spring up.

Mark Gross: The way that I see it, the future is going to be people designing things and then machines are going to be making things.

Marina Gorbis: Already we probably can’t exist without our iPhones, iPads, Macs, and PCs, and other devices that are part of our daily life, and we’re working with them all the time. But also technologies will enable us to do the kind of things that we were previously just not able to do.

Thomas Malone: I think it’s possible that some day, computers may be able to do everything that humans can do.

Jodi Forlizzi: It is not my intention that we’ll ever see a world where technology entirely replaces people. I think in the best case people and technology can work together to provide better care, more efficient work, higher productivity, et cetera.

Dan Siewiorek: I think the technologies can complement our capabilities. And so as I grow older or as I have disabilities, the technology can allow me to continue participating. So I think one of the things is it’ll allow us to be productive longer and therefore lead more interesting lives.

Jodi Forlizzi: My vision, which may not be right, is that we will work side by side. We will not compete. Let’s hope we don’t compete. That would be a terrible world.

Moshe Vardi: So, technology probably has destroyed jobs for as long as we had technology and, at the same time, created new jobs. And we’ve come to expect that this is the way things proceed and generally technology is for the better.

Susan Hassler: That’s Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University, and director of the Kennedy Institute for Information Technology. We also heard from Jodi Forlizzi, Dan Siewiorek, and Mark Gross from Carnegie Mellon University, Thomas Malone from MIT, and Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future. We’ll hear from all of them again later in the show.

Snackbot: I have an order for Jodi. Is Jodi here?

Jodi Forlizzi: Yes, I’m here.

Snackbot: Hi, Jodi. Nice to see you again.

Jodi Forlizzi: Nice to see you, Snackbot.

Snackbot: I just learned a new joke. What do you call a robot that always takes the long way?

Jodi Forlizzi: I don’t know.

Snackbot: R2D-tour. Hahaha.

Jodi Forlizzi: That was a good one.

Snackbot: Please take your apple.

Jodi Forlizzi: Thanks, Snackbot.

Snackbot: Thanks, Jodi. Enjoy your snack. I am leaving now.

Jodi Forlizzi: ’Bye, Snackbot.

Susan Hassler: That’s Carnegie Mellon’s Jodi Forlizzi interacting with a robot designed to mimic human interactions while providing a service—in this case, delivering snacks to office workers. It’s just one of the many ways our work lives are becoming more intertwined with technology, and it’s something that Moshe Vardi warns could have a bigger impact than we might be prepared for at the moment.

Moshe Vardi: Nobody can predict now how the next 50 years will unfold, but I think it’s incumbent on us to start thinking about what are the consequences of the technology that we are deploying.

Susan Hassler: He points to the IBM supercomputer Watson as a turning point in modern machine intelligence.

Moshe Vardi: Watson winning “Jeopardy!” for me was kind of a milestone because it started getting me to think very hard about what are the possible consequences.

Susan Hassler: What happens to a society when computers are capable of processing so much information so quickly that it allows them to diagnose disease, search through tomes of legal history in court cases, and handle finances faster than any team of human brains? Even jobs that seem firmly entrenched in the human realm—those based on judgment and experience—could be performed by software.

Moshe Vardi: I see machines who are getting more and more intelligent. And, of course, this has been a theme in science fiction for many years and people talk about the rise of the machine, The Terminator or SkyTeam might have been various dystopian views of this. And there are some people who will view machine intelligence as an existential risk to humanity.

Susan Hassler: Bob, this “risk of machines taking over” has actually been a topic of discussion for quite some time.

Robert Reich: Yes, we saw the impact of the first wave of this sort of technological revolution starting in the late 1970s and then the 1980s, 1990s, when almost any menial or routine job that could be replicated fairly easily by computer programs, all the insurance and clerical jobs, and computers took away all of that. Many manufacturing jobs, obviously, publishing, I mean we saw the entire hollowing out of the manufacturing base of the United States. But the professions kept on going. What we’re going to see in the next 10 years is the beginning of the hollowing-out of many of the professions—that means law, even medicine. Artificial intelligence, smart computers, will be able to diagnose problems as quickly and as readily as many highly educated people can.

Moshe Vardi: My point is that machine intelligence can be a technology with far-reaching consequences. And all I’m saying is that I think we need to start

about the consequences of it early rather than late because once you have deployed it very, very broadly, it’s very, very hard to hold it back.

Susan Hassler: So if Moshe Vardi is right and we’re headed down this technological path of no return, where machines can essentially do everything we can do, and do it better, why is that a big deal? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra time on our hands?

Robert Reich: Ah, yes. Well, this is the great hope we have had since the beginning of the technological revolution after the second World War, when we began to get the first glimmers of the whole notion of technology replacing jobs. There was a great deal of discussion about all of the free time all of us would have, and there was a great debate in America about what we would do with all this free time; how could we possibly handle all this leisure?

Susan Hassler: Well obviously this raises many economic issues, but setting them aside for the moment, why not let machines do much of the work? Wouldn’t people enjoy the extra free time?

Robert Reich: Yes. I think that people over the next 10, 15, 20 years, as this next great wave of technology engulfs us, people will want more flexibility with regard to their time, but they still want the structure of a job. I mean, with a job goes dignity and obviously comes income and benefits. People want to feel that they’re contributing. Even if we embraced the voluntary simplicity movement, and we kind of became Henry David Thoreaus, and went and lived with the utmost kind of austerity, we still would want to be doing something called work. It might be enjoyable for us, but with work comes a sense of contributing, contributing to society. I don’t think we’re ever going to give up on work.

Susan Hassler: I agree with you. I would find it hard to lounge around indefinitely. But if the machines take over so much of the work we do now, what will the work of the future look like?

Robert Reich: We’ll find out. More of “Futurework,” in a moment.

Susan Hassler: Welcome back to “Futurework.” I’m Susan Hassler.

Robert Reich: And I’m Robert Reich. Let’s talk about how technology could shape the workplace of the future.

Susan Hassler: Experts think it will deeply affect how we work.

Prachi Patel: And don’t forget who—or rather, what—we work with. Increasingly, our coworkers are machines.

Susan Hassler: That’s Spectrum contributor Prachi Patel. She and Senior Editor Phil Ross visited a few universities to meet the minds that are busy creating the work spaces of the future.

Robert Reich: Prachi started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Prachi Patel: On a blustery day, I followed Asim Smailagic into an old red brick building on the Carnegie Mellon University campus. Smailagic is director of the laboratory for interactive computer systems. Postdoctoral researcher Monica Cameirao demonstrates a system that helps stroke survivors practice their daily exercises. A computer screen, an Xbox Kinect sensor, and speakers sit on a table. Cameirao turns the system on. Then she steps 10 paces away.

System: Please stand straight with your arms hanging by your side.

Monica Cameirao: And now I start. Capture.

System: Starting capture.

Prachi Patel: On the screen, her virtual coach demonstrates an arm exercise. She follows. The coach repeats the exercise. She does too. Hmmm, this could get boring. But then the system starts a conversation.

System: Which city are you from?

Monica Cameirao: Braganza.

System: Cool. Keep going.

Prachi Patel: Monica answers a couple other questions. Then she tests the system…by getting testy herself.

System: Is it raining outside?

Monica Cameirao: I don’t care.

System: Let’s rest for a while.

Prachi Patel: Did you catch that? Monica sounded angry. And the computer picks up on her mood and asks her to rest. The same thing happens when she answers with fear or exhaustion. Smailagic says this tactic could be beneficial in many other fields. For example, in the airline industry, where companies are interested in the emotion recognition system. They want to keep flyers safe by helping pilots stay effective.

Asim Smailagic: Airlines are concerned that pilots should not be angry or frustrated during the flight, but they are in reality—some of them. But a system like this, audio based, based on their voice, can recognize that they are angry or frustrated or fearful, then it can indicate immediately and be very specific

patterns being repeated, and clearly the people at the airline should take attention of that kind of situation. Another example is surgeons. They also should not be angry or frustrated during performing their procedures. Again, very easily adjust a microphone as a sensor in the case of audio-based emotion recognition. The system can recognize their emotion and provide appropriate suggestions.

Prachi Patel: And it’s not just for pilots and surgeons. The emotion recognition technology could help all sorts of office workers.

Asim Smailagic: So the person can get pretty stressed during the business day, and when the system recognizes that kind of state, it offers a suggestion: Go and perform some de-stressing activities or exercising, listening to pleasant music.

Prachi Patel: Just as our mood affects how well we work, so does our interaction with others. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are developing technologies that would improve those interactions. One of them is Kris Kitani.

Kris Kitani: My area of work is in computer vision, and I focus on human activity analysis from video.

Prachi Patel: Kitani uses very sophisticated software to analyze images and videos. He’s working on hand detection.

Kris Kitani: So, how do I know which part of the image is hand and which part of the image is not? So, from a computer’s point of view, that’s extremely difficult because the hands could be moving. The color of the hands looks different depending on where you are and what you’re doing. So we use some machine learning algorithms and image features to figure out what part of the images have hands.

Prachi Patel: We’ll let the researchers figure that out. But imagine this: You’re wearing a camera, say, built into your glasses. You can then look at your hands, or someone else’s, to read sign language.

Kris Kitani: If you could understand where the hands are, the shapes that they’re making, then you could potentially translate the sign language into text or into audio. If you could track the hands, you could use it as a gesture interface. Let’s say, again, you have a wearable camera that’s looking down at your hands, and maybe you want to make a call, and you can have some kind of hand gesture that says I want to make a call. And you could think of other scenarios, like controlling a music player or accessing your contact list.

Prachi Patel: The team is also working on face recognition, which could have some pretty nifty uses in an office.

Kris Kitani: So if we had face tracking working and emotion tracking working or facial expression recognition working, then, for example, a blind person might be able to wear a camera, and that camera could detect where people are. The camera could tell the blind user this person is smiling now or this person is looking sad or surprised.

Prachi Patel: It’s a tremendous boon to anyone in a social situation, with the general public, or collaborating with coworkers.

Kris Kitani: Yeah, maybe you would walk into a meeting and you forgot half of the people’s names; if you had a system that could kind of quietly whisper to you everybody’s name, that could be helpful.

Prachi Patel: An intelligent system that talks to you….

Prachi Patel: In the movie Her, the lead character falls in love with his operating system. Okay, so we’re not quite there yet. Still, there are many intelligent virtual entities in our work future, says Dan Siewiorek of Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, who we heard from earlier.

Dan Siewiorek: I can see us maybe in as little as 10 years interacting on a daily basis with tens, maybe even a hundred virtual and physical entities that, like for example, you’ll have a self-driving car and you’ll have to interact with that. Then you’ll have something like Siri, except it will be a personal assistant, and you’ll interact with that. That will be a virtual assistant. So I see that we will have a number of physical and virtual robots, if you please, that we will be interacting with on a daily basis.

Prachi Patel: And these interactions could happen anywhere. No dreaded cubicle needed.

Dan Siewiorek: Your office will be everywhere. You won’t have necessarily a physical building. You may not even carry things with you. There’ll be displays in the environment. There will be ways to interact perhaps with gestures and speech.

Prachi Patel: And we won’t just be interacting with people.

Snackbot: Excuse me. Hello. Are you Prachi?

Prachi Patel: Yes, I am.

Snackbot: Nice to meet you. I am Snackbot, your personal snack delivery robot.

Prachi Patel: When I met Snackbot, I couldn’t help smiling at his childlike face.

Snackbot: I will be delivering snacks to you for the next two months. I am excited to get to know you and hope you will enjoy the snacks I bring you.

Prachi Patel: Thank you.

Snackbot: Please take your snack. Thanks, Prachi. Enjoy your snack.

Prachi Patel: Here’s Snackbot’s designer, Jodi Forlizzi at Carnegie Mellon, who we also heard from earlier.

Jodi Forlizzi: Well, overall we wanted to create this robot, Snackbot, because we wanted to have a way to study long-term human-robot interaction in the real world.

Prachi Patel: Studying human-robot interaction meant carefully designing the bot. Snackbot is 4.5 feet tall and has a wide face with big eyes and smiley mouth. It has a 360-degree camera, cameras in its eyes, sensors to track people’s legs, and a microphone to record people’s voices.

Jodi Forlizzi: So, as the robot ran its study in the halls we could record a lot of data about what people were doing. We could see whether they were leaning in, whether they were smiling. In one instance somebody pretended to be someone else, so we saw a lot of interesting things.

Prachi Patel: The researchers tested whether changing the robot’s behavior and personalizing its service would change people’s rapport with it.

Jodi Forlizzi: Yes, personalized condition is great. But for the people who weren’t receiving the personalized service, they became jealous. They actually thought the robot liked the other people better. And these were actually staff in robotics. So they weren’t people who had never been around robots before. So that was a really interesting and stellar finding for us.

Prachi Patel: Robots like Snackbot could help researchers understand how to better meet people’s needs.

Jodi Forlizzi: So even though this is fun, and it’s the context of snacking, you could also think about a medical robot or robot that assists someone who’s handicapped. If we can really understand and tune to what people need, we’ll be serving them better. So technology will be better serving people.

Prachi Patel: And it’ll give many low-skilled health-care workers either a new colleague or competition for the jobs they now perform. That technology-at-your-service sentiment seems to underline Forlizzi’s work. She believes that machines will complement humans.

Susan Hassler: And that sentiment is shared by many technologists. Now we’ll leave Prachi Patel at Carnegie Mellon, and move on to Cambridge, Massachusetts. We join Spectrum editor Phil Ross at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Phil Ross: Susan, let’s revisit the vision we had 50 years ago. We all knew then that technology would change our lives. We’d commute by air, we’d sit in front of screens and push buttons, and we’d be showered, shaved, fed, and fussed over by robots. The future is now, so let’s go down the checklist.

Phil Ross: Commute by air? Nope.

Phil Ross: Sit in front of large screens and push buttons? Yep.

Phil Ross: Groomed, fed, and fussed over by robots?

Phil Ross: No, no, and of course not. Rosie the robot from the ’60s TV cartoon series “The Jetsons,” doesn’t nag us, prepare meals in pill form, or swear by her mother’s rechargeable batteries. But wait just a little longer, says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business. He is the coauthor, with Erik Brynjolfsson, of The Second Machine Age.

Phil Ross: So, Dr. McAfee, will we ever get the humanoid robot of our dreams?

Andrew McAfee: Sure. And she might not look like Rosie from “The Jetsons,” but DARPA, the investment arm of the Defense Department, has just been sponsoring a series of robotics contests, and when you look at the video from them, they’re pretty astonishing. These are humanoid robots. They’re doing things like getting into a car, turning a key in the lock and driving it. And they’re doing them imperfectly and they’re doing them slowly, but again, just wait.

Phil Ross: You say technology can seem to move slowly because it often takes a long time to learn how best to use it, then it seems to mature overnight. One great example is driverless cars.

Andrew McAfee: Well, Erik and I got to ride in the Google autonomous car last summer, and that feels like something new under the sun. It is a recombination of a bunch of things that we already have: a car, a GPS system, a bunch of sensors, a bunch of computing power, some bandwidth and a lot of very clever knitting together of those building blocks to give us something that I think will be a big deal.

Phil Ross: But if technology’s going so well, then why does economic productivity seem to have stalled? Some say today’s inventions just don’t stack up to yesterday’s planes, trains, and antibiotics. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, calls those old ideas “low-hanging fruit,” and he says they’ve been wrung dry.

Andrew McAfee: There’s a very different view of innovation that says, no, actually, innovations don’t get used up; they become building blocks for later innovations. It’s very different than a fruit metaphor. The building block is always there for you to combine with other things.

Phil Ross: Okay. So what happens if robots get powerful enough to replace the bulk of the workforce?

Andrew McAfee: The objection that you raise is how are people going to afford all that material bounty out there if they don’t have jobs, if their old way of earning a living, which was offering their labor to the labor force, goes away? This is a head-scratching topic. I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I read science fiction to help me get a better handle on it. But the important thing to keep in mind is that future is not coming tomorrow, next year, next decade.

Phil Ross: McAfee says that jobs like tax preparation and legal discovery are in danger because they can easily be automated. But there are many jobs that will resist automation at least for a while.

Andrew McAfee: If I had hair, I would not want a robot cutting it yet. I haven’t seen a robot chef yet that I would trust, but I’ve read about these very automated pizza makers, espresso makers, and now most recently, hamburger makers that are out there. But in general, jobs that exist and require a lot of interaction or a lot of work in the physical world, these seem to be more immune to automation right now.

Phil Ross: Technology will still help us in these physically interactive jobs. MIT roboticist Julie Shah studies how to manage man-machine collaboration.

Julie Shah: A lot of my work is in the area of deploying robots to work with people in manufacturing, to build planes, to build cars. And there it’s all about safety because these are large, potentially dangerous, fast-moving robots. And the way we’ve maintained safety in the past is we cage robots. We keep them physically separate from people.

Phil Ross: Shah says that limits the opportunity for robots to do useful work.

Julie Shah: Being able to move the cage around robots and have them move and work in the same space as people allows us to not think about does this have to be done only by a person or does it have to be done solely by a robot, but how do we design a hybrid process where we can strategically integrate robots to assist people in doing their work better. There’s an enormous amount of manual work that is very far off from ever being transitioned to being done by robots.

Phil Ross: Can you tell me how this has worked in practice?

Julie Shah: Absolutely. So one of our current projects is working to strategically deploy robots on an automotive final assembly line. It turns out that final assembly of cars, the place where you’re doing the cabling and the insulation, that’s still done almost entirely by people, actually, and it’s because it’s dexterous work. In this case the non-value-added work is all that time the person spends walking back and forth, getting the tools, getting the parts. And it’s a fantastic example of where we can deploy a robot to do that fetching.

Phil Ross: Like a surgeon who doesn’t even have to look up from the incision but just puts a hand out and asks for something.

Julie Shah: Yes. And there’s an analogy in manufacturing of really treating that assembly mechanic, that associate in assembly, as a surgeon.

Phil Ross: So, robots will play Fido because they aren’t close to being as dexterous as humans. And there’s another wonderfully human skill that seems irreplaceable.

Mark Gross: So, this is, you know, human creativity and intuition. So, this is our ability to think up new things and innovate and do design. The way that I see it, the future is going to be people designing things and then machines are going to be making things.

Phil Ross: That’s Mark Gross, a computational design professor at Carnegie Mellon. Gross spoke to us from Boulder, Colorado. He has created software that should make 3-D printing easier.

Susan Hassler: 3-D printing, of course. You can’t talk about the future of work without mentioning 3-D printing.

Robert Reich: Yes. The radical manufacturing technology has been used to print food and body parts. Some technologists believe 3-D printing will transform just about every major industry.

Phil Ross: That’s right. Gross says it has allowed even ordinary citizens to do things that once required an engineer’s skills.

Mark Gross: What types of work will be possible when 3-D printing is available to everyone? The same kind of work that’s available now, only it will be accessible to more people. It will be accessible to more kinds of companies. You won’t require large investments, capital investments in manufacturing equipment, because it will be inexpensive to make. So I don’t think the nature of work will change profoundly, but the accessibility of these technologies will make it far more easy for small companies and one- or two-person companies to do things that previously required a staff of a hundred or more.

Phil Ross: Gross and his graduate student Gabe Johnson have a 3-D printing start-up called Blank Slate Systems.

Mark Gross: Blank Slate Systems is working on software to make it possible for anyone and everyone to draw something and get it made in 3-D right away. That’s something that’s really hard right now because the existing design software requires, you know, six months to a year to get good at, and then it’s expensive.

Gabe Johnson: The software that we’re working on right now is designed to work on tablets. So the idea is that if we’re sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant and we have an idea, we can sketch it, draw it, and take it home to the shop and actually make it. So the basic idea here is that Sketch It, Make It is going to let me touch the screen and kind of wag my finger around, and it’s going to interpret what I do as some sort of editing input. So that input could mean draw a little line there, draw an arc, draw a circle, draw an ellipse, whatever you want. But it’s also things, editing gestures such as “erase.” So I’m just going to scribble that out, scribble that thing out; it goes away. And notice that I’m not changing modes here. I’m not going up to erase mode, line mode, right angle mode. It recognizes what I’m doing based on what I draw.

Phil Ross: A small company or even an individual could use this to quickly design and make something that they can test and improve.

Robert Reich: That could really change how manufacturing’s done in this country.

Susan Hassler: Yes, as Phil Ross reported, 3-D printing is a great example of how technology makes our work more efficient.

Robert Reich: And really, all of the technologies we’ve heard about so far seem to reinforce a human–computer symbiosis. Machines complementing humans.

Susan Hassler: But could technology actually replace human workers? We’ll talk about that some more, after this short break.

Robert Reich: Welcome back to “Futurework.” I’m Robert Reich.

Susan Hassler: And I’m Susan Hassler. We’ve now seen how technology will make our work lives more productive and more efficient, but could technology replace our jobs entirely? We asked New Yorkers how they would feel if they were replaced by machines.

Voices of people on the street: I mean if the robot made my clothes, that would be a whole lot easier on me, but a robot can’t wear my clothes and look as good as I do in my outfits; I’m just saying.

If I could get a robot to do exactly what I did, I’d retire and let it work, and be totally happy.

It would be very bizarre. I don’t—I don’t know. I mean to make a machine my enemy; there’s a lot of sci-fi movies where that happens, where the best friend helps the people in outer space and all of a sudden Hal the robot from 2001:

turns on people. That’s what would happen. It would be man against machine.... It would take my livelihood. I would hate the thing. I would—I would unplug it. I’d get even that way. I’d turn off the electricity or take their batteries out.

It would make me feel very, very sad, and it would make me feel worthless, really. And it would make me feel that everything I had learned and everything I had trained to do was just not worthwhile. If a metal piece of machinery can do that job, it would make me feel useless.

It makes me feel I may have a machine doing a job that I should be doing.... Sad...because I’m used to working and staying busy.

Moshe Vardi: Somehow the progress over the last few years really shook me to start to think, okay, what happens if we are successful beyond our imagination? What happens if we are wildly successful?

Susan Hassler: That’s Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi—we heard from him at the top of the show. And he poses a good question, Bob. We’ve seen that computers are becoming more and more sophisticated. They’re taking over jobs that a little while ago we thought only humans could do. So could you talk a little bit about what you think the impact of these changes are going to be and how this revolution will be different from previous ones. We survived the industrial revolution; how we will survive and thrive in this one?

Robert Reich: Well, this one is different in the sense that it’s happening faster. The industrial revolution took place over almost a hundred years, give or take several decades. This one is taking place over, well, depending on how you begin to measure it, it’s really taking place over about 15 years. Projections are that in 15 years robots and various other forms of numerically controlled machinery will be taking over a very substantial number of jobs. And the timing makes a lot of difference because, you see, when you’re spread out over 100 years, a lot of adjustments can be made. People can train for new things; labor markets can adapt; people can move from place to place. Many adaptations occur. But when you’re talking about 15 years, or even 20 years, those adaptations are much harder to make.

Susan Hassler: So does this mean we’re all going to be sitting around with nothing to do?

Robert Reich: Well, we’re always going to need technicians who are able to install and repair and upgrade and monitor computers. Technicians are sort of given. They were there and they were needed in the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and they are needed now and will be needed in the future.

Susan Hassler: Right—and people to build the computers, program the computers, skilled engineers and computer scientists. But what about everybody else?

Robert Reich: Well, most of the rest of the jobs will be personal service jobs. They might be therapeutic in nature. They might be jobs that are personal coaches, personal physical therapy in ways that obviously require a touching and a connecting, psychological and physical connection, in ways that just by their very nature computers can’t possibly do. We’ll continue to have a lot of retail, and restaurant, hotel and hospital jobs, even though computers and the Internet will be making inroads in these areas as well.

Susan Hassler: No doubt even many of those jobs are done and will continue to be done with the help of computers.

Thomas Malone: I think we need to focus more on not computers versus people but computers and people.

Susan Hassler: Thomas Malone heads up the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

Thomas Malone: How can we create synergistic systems where people and computers both use their own unique capabilities to do intelligent action without trying to replace one with the other?

Robert Reich: Malone defines collective intelligence as “groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent.”

Thomas Malone: Now, by this definition, collective intelligence has existed for a very long time. Armies, companies, countries, families, those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent. But in the last few years, we’ve seen some very new kinds of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet.

Susan Hassler: Like Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create Web pages, link those Web pages to each other, then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google algorithms so that when you type a question in the Google search bar, the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent.

Thomas Malone: Or think of Wikipedia, where thousands of people all over the world have created a very large and amazingly high-quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control, and by the way, without even being paid. I think these new examples of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet are not the end of the story but just barely the beginning.

Robert Reich: And Malone says this collective intelligence will lead to companies that combine the brainpower of lots of people and lots of computers to create businesses that are far more intelligent than the organizations we have today—beginning with the way they hire employees.

Susan Hassler: The 1999 cult comedy Office Space famously mocks the modern workplace, as in this scene between consultant Bob Slydell and buffoon VP Bill Lumbergh.

Don Peck: When you look at the hiring system that we have today, it’s just remarkable really how dysfunctional it is.

Susan Hassler: Don Peck is deputy editor of The Atlantic magazine. He’s thought a lot about how pure mathematics could replace human judgment in decisions about hiring and promotions. And about how smart data may be used to make such decisions in the future. In today’s workplace, the process is primitive at best.

Don Peck: Individual interviewers ask their own questions, sometimes kind of make those questions up as they go along. They don’t ask consistent questions from candidate to candidate. And then they make a hiring decision based on gut feel, personality, and their hunches.

Robert Reich: Compared to the sophistication of our economy and today’s businesses, this kind of gut-based decision making feels pretty antiquated and doesn’t necessarily lead to the most effective workforce. So a handful of companies are looking at new ways of assessing job talent and hire-ability.

Don Peck: There’s a company called Knack, for instance. They’ve designed these little games. You can download them on your iPad. One of them is called Wasabi Waiter. It involves delivering the right sushi to customers at an increasingly crowded happy hour. And it seems like it’s just a flippant little game; in fact, it’s designed by neuroscientists, psychologists, econometricians, and so on. And it’s designed very specifically to assess at a very fine level various aspects of intelligence, of personality, of sociability. And it spits out megabytes of data in just 20 minutes of game playing—much more than an SAT would, much more than a personality test would.

Susan Hassler: Data about how introverted or extroverted you are, or how successful you might be in a leadership role.

Robert Reich: There’s another bit of technology, designed at MIT, that assesses the skills of people already on the job.

Don Peck: They’re a little bit like the “Star Trek” “Wi-Fi” lapels that you see on TV sometimes. And what these allow companies to do for current employees is you put them on and you go about your work day, and the badges send out about a hundred pieces of data every minute on average. They track where you go, who you talk to, how long you talk with those people, whether you’re facing them, what the tone of your voice is, how much time you spend listening versus talking.

Susan Hassler: And by compiling all of this data, researchers say they can suss out what makes for a successful team, and the data signature of a natural leader.

Don Peck: It’s an entirely new series of data that can allow individual people to kind of benchmark their performance and see where they might be doing better. But, of course, it also allows employers to asses them and judge who might have the potential to move up.

Susan Hassler: No more talking your way out of a bad performance review.

Robert Reich: Or justifying a company golf outing—unless, of course, the data proves it worthwhile.

Susan Hassler: Access to this data might also allow companies to find employees outside of the traditional talent pool.

Don Peck: When hiring managers are looking at candidates, you know, it’s pretty tough to figure out who’s going to be a good worker and who isn’t. So traditionally employers have relied on a few very large signals, college probably being the most important of those: Did you attend college, did you finish college? What school did you go to? What was your GPA?

Robert Reich: Peck says the college model penalizes anyone who can’t afford a good four-year school, who couldn’t sit still in a classroom at age 18, or who didn’t go to grad school at 22. Data-based hiring models open the field to an entirely new group of potential employees.

Don Peck: You know, a lot of companies that I talk to, including some very sophisticated companies, told me that as they’re using these methods more and more, they’re able to dip into noncollege populations, other nontraditional populations much more. These are the people who otherwise would be left behind. And I think in many ways it may lead to a much fairer labor market at every stage of one’s career.

Susan Hassler: It’s not just the labor market and hiring practices that are likely to change. MIT’s Thomas Malone says the very structure of companies will change as well.

Thomas Malone: We’re in the early stages of an increase in human freedom in business. The reason I think that is because it’s now possible for the first time in human history to have the economic benefits of very large organizations, things like economies of scale, and at the same time, to have the human benefits of very small organizations, things like freedom, flexibility, creativity, and motivation.

Robert Reich: Creativity. Motivation. Innovation. Concepts that are key to the future economy.

Susan Hassler: And companies have to be flexible, to allow their employees room to innovate. So if you get your best ideas in the middle of the night, work then. If you get a brainstorm while on vacation in Tahiti, share your ideas from afar.

Robert Reich: Taking that one step further, with the interconnectedness allowed by the technologies of the near future, there may be no more centralized offices, no more big boss in the corner office, no more corporate ladder.

Thomas Malone: These technologies have reduced the cost of coordination to such a low level that it’s now possible for huge numbers of people, even in very large organizations, to have enough information to make more decisions for themselves instead of just following orders from someone above them in a hierarchy who supposedly knows more than they do. So when people are making their own decisions, they’re often more highly motivated. They’re often more creative, to work on their own thing rather than just following orders. They’re able to be more flexible. And often, they just plain like it better.

Susan Hassler: Which is good for workers, and good for business.

Robert Reich: Now let’s return to this idea of what exactly the workers of the future will be doing. Marina Gorbis, a noted futurist and executive director of the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley. She says tomorrow’s workforce will need to be part artist and part technician.

Marina Gorbis: There’s still need to create the machines. There’s still need to create the software. So there’s a whole batch of jobs relating to designing, creating, coding, and working with these machines.

Susan Hassler: But it’s more than just designing the machines. We’ll need to become experts at understanding how machines interact with people.

Marina Gorbis: I think that it’s clear the kind of skills we’ll need and the kind of jobs we’ll have will require connections. We’ll need more and more people that we call transdisciplinary people. So they may have skills and expertise in one area, so psychology, but they may also need to understand computer science. It may be an artist but who also understands technology. So it’s being able to sort of transition and connect multiple disciplines and multiple understanding of different domains is what becomes critical.

Robert Reich: So what does this all mean for young people today, for job seekers, or kids trying to figure out what to major in?

Susan Hassler: How do we prepare for a future that’s going to be immersed in machine intelligence?

Marina Gorbis: I think the best way we can think about preparing ourselves is to prepare ourselves to learn on a continuous basis. We now live in an environment where knowledge and information is not confined to textbooks or classrooms, but every moment of our lives potentially can be a learning moment because we’re carrying these technologies with us; we can reference them, we can ask people information; we can ask people to contribute to solutions. So really I think what we need to be thinking about preparing ourselves is to continuously learn, to really convert every moment into a learning moment.

Moshe Vardi: So the only advice I can give to students is, get very, very good education, be very agile, you know, prepare yourself to be very broad. Don’t narrow yourself too early because we really don’t know what kind of jobs will exist in this new environment except that we know that they will require a combination of both I would say cognitive skills and interpersonal skills.

Susan Hassler: One thing that robots still don’t have, according to Rice University’s Moshe Vardi, is emotional intelligence—people skills. We heard earlier how software might react to emotional cues, but that’s not the same as person-to-person empathy and connection. So, Bob, should young people be training to be psychologists? Therapists?

Robert Reich: Well, look, number one, anybody who tells young people that they should prepare this or that or that the future’s going to be like this or that doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We have no idea what the future is. But we do know with a high degree of confidence that young people preparing for the future do need to be not only problem solvers and critical thinkers, but also problem identifiers.

Susan Hassler: They need to be able to read situations, both with machines and with humans, and make decisions about how to handle those situations.

Robert Reich: They need to be able to collaborate, to work in groups, because we know that the work of the future is not going to be by individuals. There are going to be some lone geniuses out there, but most of it is going to be working in groups. Pattern recognition, understanding and seeing the kinds of things that technology will give us in terms of data. Understanding and understanding the value of patterns is also going to be very important.

Susan Hassler: Also, an appreciation of the arts—an aspect of life that people will ideally have more time to explore.

Robert Reich: And ethical, a fundamentally ethical grounding, you know—what’s right, what’s good? Technology is going to create so many ethical questions in terms of what should we be doing. What is a good world; what’s a good life; what is the nature of life? We can’t answer those questions. We don’t know even what they will be, but we know that a grounding in ethical thought and reasoning and logic and sensitivity is also going to be very, very important for these young people.

Susan Hassler: I have young children and they’re surrounded by STEM discussions—you know, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There’s a movement to have people become scientifically and mathematically literate, not necessarily to work in these areas, but at least to have some understanding of what they are. I think you’re right that it’s also going to have to accompany this sort of larger view about the ethics of what’s going to happen because sometimes now you have people who are working in technology who aren’t carrying on in the Oppenheimer tradition of trying to speculate about what’s right and what’s wrong about what’s going on.

Robert Reich: And, I think, it’s not that we’ll ever arrive at a certitude about what’s right and wrong, I don’t think. I think really the nature of an ethical discussion is to keep in mind the larger questions, to remind ourselves as individuals and as a society and as participants in the world that there are consequences attached to all of these technologies. And ultimately the survival of the species is at issue.

Arthur C. Clarke: The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.

Susan Hassler: Thanks to Arthur C. Clarke, predicting the future 50 years ago.

And you’ve been listening to “Futurework,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum and the Directorate for Engineering of the National Science Foundation.

Robert Reich: The directorate supports people whose discoveries and inventions make our lives more productive, sustainable, and enjoyable.

Susan Hassler: For transcripts of this program, and expanded stories, check out the IEEE Spectrum website: Spectrum.ieee.org. You’ll find many other engineering features at this website for the National Science Foundation: nsf.gov.

Robert Reich: We had support for this program from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. More information on Sloan at Sloan.org.

Susan Hassler: Our thanks to the staff and editors at IEEE Spectrum, and to John Barth, Prachi Patel, Mia Lobel, and Paul Ruest at Argot Studios. And to Jim Richards and Teresa Adams at the Berkeley Studios. Our technical producer is Dennis Foley. Our executive producer is Sharon Basco. I’m Susan Hassler.

Robert Reich: I’m Robert Reich. This IEEE Spectrum production is presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks for listening.

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