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Changing minds at Davos on the future of work

Brian Peccarelli  President, Tax & Accounting, Thomson Reuters

Brian Peccarelli  President, Tax & Accounting, Thomson Reuters

When the facts change, the delegates at the World Economic Forum can and do change their minds.

What may have been received wisdom at previous meetings can be revisited in the face of new evidence, or fresh ideas. The result can be a new insight into an enduring issue, freeing up new conversations.

The conversation on Artificial Intelligence – AI – on the future workforce is shifting from pessimistic concerns about job losses to excitement and engagement about what technology might mean for the future workforce.

The reunified Germany has been cited as an analogy for the future we face: two polarized economies, one among the most and one among the least efficient industrial nations in the developed world, uniting over a period of years to create a single economic powerhouse. When the Wall came down, East Germany had full employment but low productivity. The years that followed saw a comprehensive retraining of many in the workforce as part of the social rebuilding process.

Delegates at Davos have been looking at the long-term consequences of the technological revolution. They have been looking at the retraining that will be required to ensure people continue to enjoy productive and rewarding lives as machines learn to assume more and more responsibilities in society.

Last year the theme at Davos was “the Fourth Industrial Revolution”; this year it has developed into the exploration of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”. It is an almost inevitable progression from talking about what technology offers to what we as a society want from it.

So now the discussion has moved from machines replacing humans in the workforce to machines augmenting humans: making people’s jobs easier, and potentially more interesting, but not making them redundant.

When viewed from that perspective, the future does not look quite as intimidating. Our experience of the fourth industrial revolution so far is that it has improved productivity but not at the cost of jobs: in the U.S.A. for instance the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics records some 5.5 million open job roles.

What will happen is that the nature of those jobs is changing. New levels of efficiency are being achieved with these new technologies. Humans are developing new perspectives of working in this new world. Old job descriptions are being swept away, as new ones develop. And this has always been a feature of industrial revolutions.

The WEF’s Global Risks Report covers the debate concisely – the social concerns, the technological opportunities and the longer-term risks inherent in aligning the values of the machines with the interests of the humans who govern their operations. It is a fascinating read: although it is realistic about public concerns and potential risks it offers a vision of an exciting future.

And Thomson Reuters continues to work at the cutting edge of these new technologies. Our newly-formed Center for Cognitive Computing is dedicated to advancing the state of the art in machine perception, reasoning, knowledge management and human-computer interfaces – with the focus on that interface. These technologies will revolutionize how people access and use information by interacting with machines.

It is an approach that echoes the discussions taking place at Davos in this session. The future workforce will be augmented by constantly developing, and increasingly powerful technologies. Humans will work better and smarter as machines assume more and more tasks. But there is a new optimism that there will still be plenty of work for us humans to do.


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