Business and government leaders will soon gather in Davos to discuss the most pressing global issues. I think one of these is the relationship between employment and technology. Over the past months, the impressive progress of artificial intelligence has raised concerns about its potential job-destroying effects. Yet this debate is often sensationalized: Are robots coming for our jobs? Do humans have any chances left in the race against the machines?

My approach is to think this through in terms of collaboration rather than competition.

As a matter of fact, history suggests we humans are climbing up the evolutionary ladder jointly with machines, instead of struggling in a contest. These stronger and smarter “Sherpas” will not leave us behind; on the contrary, roped together, we will be able to claim higher summits.

While maybe more comforting, this perspective still proves challenging enough for business and public leaders.

Not rivals for jobs but partners for prosperity

Up until today, humans and machines have mutually elevated themselves. When a machine replaces a human, the result, paradoxically, is faster growth and, in the long run, rising employment. On this point, the “fourth industrial revolution” will presumably resemble the previous ones.

Three economists at Deloitte have recently dived into census data from England and Wales over 144 years [1]. Their key findings: over this long period, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. Its direct effects were straightforward: fewer humans have been employed in strenuous tasks or in out-dated sectors, while more got hired in rising sectors like automotive or IT. But its indirect effects were perhaps less intuitive: the application of technology in knowledge-intensive sectors improved the outcomes of those sectors, thus actually driving demand for more specialized labour. Healthcare is a perfect illustration: the 2011 census recorded 26 times as many nurses as in 1871. Professional services were in the same case. Besides, technology induced price drops, freeing spending power, which, in turn, generated additional demand and jobs in existing or bourgeoning sectors, like hairdressers or gym teachers.

Obviously, today’s technology will shape tomorrow’s world in an unpredictable way. But comparable outcomes are likely to prevail. Artificial intelligence will substitute routine work and disrupt many businesses. At the same time, it will also enhance knowledge workers’ capabilities and allow them to engage in more complex and value-adding tasks. For instance, nurses could free up more time to morally support patients if a cognitive system would help them observe complex treatment guidelines. In many fields, advanced analytics will amplify – not replace – human intelligence for more effective decision-making. And machines will keep contributing to lower prices, unleashing spending and jobs.

Making it work: a shared responsibility 

Although there are reasons to be overall optimistic about the future of work, we should be well aware of the huge challenges ahead.

Most organizations today have only limited understanding of how machines will impact their workforce. It will be up to their leaders to uncover opportunities for collaboration between people and machines, and then redesign work to make their organization more efficient and their employees’ jobs more engaging.

The pace and magnitude of technological change point towards high levels of skills obsolescence. We must anticipate massive quantitative and qualitative educational needs. Technological literacy will be key, obviously, but I also believe we will need to cultivate our “core human competencies”. Collaboration, empathy, active listening and caring, creativity, are the skills that will allow us to keep an edge over machines. I am deeply convinced that teaching “human abilities” will be at the centre of education for our time, from kindergarten all through lifelong learning.

Finally, we need to anticipate the social effects of a “winner-takes-all” economy, increasingly rewarding a limited number of highly skilled workers and leaving millions behind. Income inequality can only widen up to a certain point before the foundations of business and society are threatened. We will need to find innovative ways of creating and distributing shared value for the greatest number of people.

Neither business nor any government can meet those challenges alone. The World Economic Forum has made “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” its theme for the Davos meeting this year. I am welcoming this as a sign that we are ready to engage in a global conversation about the technological future we want to shape.

[1] Stewart I., De D. and Cole A., Technology and people: The great job-creating machine, Deloitte, 2015.

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