One of the greatest political economists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes had predicted the meaning of life and work in his famous essay "The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren" in 1930. He predicted that thanks to advanced technology, the future generation will have plenty of time to devote to a leisure activity, sports, or arts other than work. But the million-dollar question is whether industry 5.0 led by automation (robotics and AI) will realise his prediction or create unemployment and social unrest?
Over the past two decades, the consumer Internet has changed human life profoundly, but industrial internet and automation will not only cause major disruptions in wages, income, future livelihoods, income distribution but also how humans spend their time on formal employment, leisure, education, and entertainment.
Human labour performs physical tasks, cognitive tasks, and contextual tasks. The division of labour has sharpened among humans since the Neolithic Age when humans have started agricultural practices and stopped hunting and gathering. But during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the development of power machinery had gradually removed onerous physical tasks (dirty, dangerous, and complex) which need a lower level of expertise in the workflow and predictability from factories and fields. But thanks to Machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence), the 5th Industrial revolution will replace human labour from physical tasks, which need a moderate level of expertise. And in the coming decades, humans and robots will work collaboratively on cognitive and contextual tasks, too.
But there are some huge stumbling blocks such as cheap human labour, poor energy infrastructure, and transport network, which has restricted the adoption of IIoT on a global scale, particularly in African and other developing countries. Another challenge is the lack of ubiquitous, reliable broadband internet across the globe. For consumer internet, real-time is a few seconds, but for industrial IoT in manufacturing, energy, transportation, and healthcare, real-time is often sub-milliseconds. Unexpected server glitches at Google or Amazon can cause email delays or streamed video. But the failure of the power grid, or the air traffic control system can be a huge catastrophe.
Applying IIoT in certain critical sectors such as autonomous driving and health care may create an ethical dilemma. And that is the real danger.
Who will be responsible if robots (AI) fail in health care?
Who will be responsible if an autonomous vehicle met with an accident?
Men or machine?
But thanks to human ingenuity, an integrated digital-human workforce (human-centered automation) will ward off the negatives of automation.
The broad adoption of the Industrial Internet (usage of smart products, intelligent assistants, and robots) in many industries will affect labour markets, income inequality and create huge disruption, which needs an appropriate policy response at local, national, and global levels. An integrated digital and human workforce will lead to a structural shift in employment and transform skills and job requirements in the future, such as engineers to develop robots, data scientists to analyse data and draw insight. The challenge is how to retrain those labour forces engaged in routine and repetitive tasks with new technology (robots) and interpersonal, emotional skills whose job profiles are going to change because of the introduction of AI algorithms.
Historically, technological advances have always created new products, markets, and new types of jobs. Replacing horse transport for automobiles at the turn of the 20th century had created more jobs for manufacturing and servicing of cars, then losing the job of horse transport.
The digital revolution (revolution of computation and the connectivity) since 1950 has created intellectual capital and intellectual property as a major facet of the modern economy and professional technical-scientific class, a large part of the labour force that it simply didn't exist as of 1930.
Recently, the smartphone has created mobile phone app developers' jobs that did not even exist before the 1990s.
It will create new hybrid industries that need new categories of jobs such as medical robot designers, grid modernisation managers, intermodal transportation network engineers, which need industry domain knowledge, hard skill (new technologies, software and data skills), and soft skills (e.g., Leadership, communication, and collaboration).
The workforce impact of digital technologies will be gradual and transformative; hence policymakers will have to create an enabling environment for the digital talent market responsive to the demands of the future workforce.
To ward off any negative fallout of disruption, policymakers need to evaluate existing approaches and experiment with new digital workforce models to reform the education and training system, reskill the labour force to meet the growing needs of the new job, and provide a safety net (universal income program) to a vulnerable population.
Thanks to the integration of IIoT, ML, Cloud, cognitive computing, and 3D printing, Keynes's prediction will prove right provided that policymakers across the globe can address barriers such as ethical dilemmas, retrenchment, and social inequality.