February 5, 2013 10:50 pm

In two decades, we will see enhanced people

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From Ms Tracey Keys and Prof Thomas Malnight.

Sir, It’s clearly robot week at the FT and we are glad to see you raising the profile of a critical issue for the future of both economies and societies worldwide. Edward Luce (“Obama must face up to the rise of robots”, 3 February, 2013) clearly illustrates that the world of work is shifting – fast – and that robots or smart machines are taking on a greater array of tasks. Some allow us to be our own experts, guiding us through the maze of tax returns or designing fashion items to print on 3D printers. Mr Luce is right, jobs will go. But it will not just be middle income jobs – even graduates from hallowed institutions are at risk as any job that can be reduced to repetitive steps or requires massive information processing (think law) can be automated.

However, two critical points are missing. First, many new types of jobs will be created: think car train lead driver (once our electric cars join up “convoy-style”), or big data analyst, or robot mechanic. Second, we are not rethinking education and training for the next generations who will face a world that is not only digital but machine-driven – we need to get them ready.

Which brings us to Andrew Hill’s tongue in cheek article (“Bionic managers would be cheap at $6m” February, 5) on six-million-dollar chief executives, or at least ones we can programme, whether bionically or with the latest gadgets. The point is not whether senior executives need reprogramming – which some clearly do – it’s about what the “singularity”, as Ray Kurzweil calls it, will do to societies and economies. In the next two decades we will have enhanced people, aided by emotional empathy gadgets or implanted rational pure-power processing. And it’s going to divide us even more than today as societies will see rising inequalities. This could be much better – or worse – than a bad sci-fi movie depending on how we share the advances. And we will need those lawyers (robotic and human) to help navigate the moral and ethical arguments around enhanced humanity.

While robots will take some roles, they will open opportunities in others. The issue is how humans can stay ahead of the curve in terms of what they do, what skills they need, and their ability to leverage the power of robots in the future. Just as we have adjusted to the use of robots in factories, how can we prepare to tap into their power in offices, schools, hospitals and every other aspect of our lives and work?

Tracey Keys, Director, Strategy Dynamics Global, and Thomas Malnight, Professor, IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland: Authors of The Global Trends Report 2013

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