Future of work – Changed, connected, faster, new jobs, robots

Education should not be strait-jacket thinking. It should be a liberalisation of the mind, according to Professor Peter Cochrane, a professor of sentient systems at the University of Suffolk in the United Kingdom.

He was speaking on “The Future Workscape: The influence of new technology on trajectories of work”, as part of a lecture series on the Future of Work held at the University of Pretoria in South Africa on 29 November 2021 and a precursor to the launch of its Centre for the Future of Work scheduled for 2022.

Cochrane is a futurist, business mentor, advisor and consultant to government departments and international companies in the UK and United States. Throughout his career he has worked across a broad spectrum including: circuit, system and network design; software production and manufacture; machine programming; human interfaces; adaptive systems and control; company transformation; and management system design.

During various stages of his career, Cochrane has tried to make himself redundant through the use of technology.

He berated university students for not being critical in class and for not directing questions to their professors. “They tend to let the professors get out of the room rather than challenge them. They just accept things. It is not enough to understand something. You have to question it. It is interesting that a number of times I found myself picking up errors in books.”

His philosophy is to “get up in [the] morning and just work hard on things that are very challenging and very interesting”.

The forces of industry

Cochrane explained that the biggest force function we have is industry – we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and are moving fast into the fifth. Society 5.0 was defined in 2016 and is now outmoded. Technology is progressing fast. Things are happening fast.

Behind Industry 4.0 is the coalescence of the biotech ecosystem – to achieve a green future. “We are currently in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which involves the cyber, physical, nano and biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), robots and the Internet of Things.”

In this ecosystem society has to achieve a green future, where we have to orchestrate the lifecycle of all materials through production, supply, support reuse, repurpose, recycling, “all at very high efficiencies, for our species to continue in the way we have progressed”.

Quantum computing will become a reality in the next few years. “The technology is very difficult – we are pushing science as far as we can go… It will be analogue not digital, absolutely probabilistic, not deterministic,” predicted Cochrane.

It requires cryogenics and digital control, while there is a need for digital computing to confirm results, meaning it does not give you a result but a range. “Without this technology, we will never fully understand chemistry, biology, physics, life, intelligence and weather systems.

“No matter how many people we put onto a team, we will never fully understand the brain of ours. The only piece of technology that could achieve this is quantum computing whereby the universe is not a linear place. It is governed by quantum mechanics in its core. The complex and non-linear rule. We don’t think like that and we don’t work like that,” he said.

Everything has changed

For Cochrane, everything has changed, everything is connected, everything is moving faster. Change is occurring in technology, the workspace, home and society and can only accelerate. “We somehow as a species and society have to keep pace… The latest mobile phones are more powerful than some of the super computers of 1997.”

He said much is known about the sociology of people but not about the sociology of things, while data overload is a disabling epidemic.

He said COVID-19 changed the world in two weeks, during which the much debated impossible-impractical became the new norm. Do-it-yourself tests on devices mean rare visits to a doctor, whereby people can check their temperature or blood pressure with the use of devices. Remote diagnosis is the norm while technology is affordable.

“In education we went [from] students filling lecture halls to online” and the same applies to schools, though there are challenges with lack of devices and broadband. People can complain that it is not like being in a classroom, but it is better than not being in a classroom at all, Cochrane pointed out.

Work has been redefined. “Work is what you do, not somewhere you go. Work is not a nine-to-five routine. It is a component of an integrated lifestyle.” Attitudes of employees have changed – whereby employees say, “get a robot to do that”.

He pointed out that offices in London are empty. “People are reluctant to go back to work. New methods of work are interesting. In the UK, the world of work has changed. There are a million vacancies available – people want interesting projects to work on.”

If they don’t get that, they leave. There are positions for doctors, nurses, scientists, engineers and lorry drivers. “Many refuse to return to the office. There are new working methods and styles. Work is not a nine-to-five activity. Getting people to get back to work is going to be difficult,” according to Cochrane.

He said there is a difference between management and leadership and they are two different disciplines. Good managers persuade people to do what they don’t want to do. “When you are a good leader, you convince people to do what they don’t realise they are capable of doing.”

With COVID-19, people are working longer hours. “Creativity doesn’t occur between 9am and 5pm and if you have a control freak manager who has only one way of working, and it is their way, and you have to adopt this, then all creativity and innovation disappears. The organisation becomes moribund – you can’t go forwards doing the same things as before.”

Cochrane said university students need to be hands on. “If I were God for a day, I would destroy PowerPoint presentations and get people to tell stories. I am getting my students to build things.”

New jobs and robots

Responding to a question around people being afraid that technology will put them out of work, he said there is a demand for new jobs. “We are not being smart in strategising the education and training process ahead of demand. We wait until there is a high level of unemployment. We’ve got to be a lot more smart when it comes to planning for education and training.”

He said human beings are “very good at dealing with surprises. Robots are relentless. They don’t get tired, they don’t stop working and they don’t ever lose concentration.” If it weren’t for robots and AI, “our products would not be as good as they are. We certainly won’t have the vehicles and products we enjoy.”

He referred to the concept of exponential education – robots are networked throughout the world and when one discovers or experiences something, or something happens that turns out to be good, they all understand it and practise it immediately. “This is in stark contrast to you and I discovering something and publishing it in an academic publication.”

He referred to a news clip on Cyborg Security in Sweden where student Hanna Horwig had a microchip implanted into her wrist. Such chips can contain medical records and driver’s licence and passport details “instead of carrying bits of cardboard or not having anything on you”, said Cochrane.

Technology-induced change can only go one way, like a rachet. “Robotics and AI have started to edge away from us. We have to be adaptable and recognise change and move quickly with it. In the new age of augmentation, humans and machines have to work together to solve the problems we now face.”

Robots and humans can learn from each other. We are going to be confronted with many options. “The challenge is to make the best choices for our species and for the technology itself.”

He referred to his 10 grandchildren who have mastered technology from the time they were babies. “These are the little guys who are going to change the world. They are living with technology and are not acquiring it.”