Should we get ready for the 4-day weekend?

The Future of Work in the Machine Age

No technology will have such a far-reaching impact on the time spent by employees and productivity than artificial intelligence will have. Still, the changing nature of future jobs, which will require more creativity and judgment, means that employees need to become smarter in the way they use their time.

“Thank God it’s Friday” is commonly heard in offices on Fridays, as it signifies the start of the weekend – a small relief before we get lost once again in the rigmarole of another busy week. Globally, most corporations run on a fundamental assumption of a defined workweek with synchronous activities, in which employees work together from morning until evening. In a highly competitive global setup, the dilemma for most of us is how to find a balance between the infinite demands at work and the finite availability of time.

Enter the third machine age, when humanity may finally find a solution to this age-old predicament. The first machine age began in the nineteenth century, with machines taking over some of the manual labor like producing basic yarn or setting up other manufacturing lines. In the second machine age in twentieth century, machines started taking over some of the mental labor like calculators, diagnostics systems, etc.

Photograph by Marc Mueller

We are now at the cusp of the third machine age that will be powered by artificial intelligence (AI), whereby machines take over most routine human activities, including smart and emotional labor, through virtual personal assistants, chatbots, autonomous driving, etc.

With machine intelligence becoming on par with human intelligence, AI applications will likely take over those mundane and predictive tasks during and outside of office hours. The average employee spends more than one-third of his or her time either reading emails or searching for and gathering information. Many studies also indicate that managers spend more than half of their time on administrative coordination and control tasks. Here’s where AI will help.

Consider this: instead of sifting through countless emails after a two-week holiday, your AI personal assistant instantaneously earmarks the important ones for you to read and disregards the rest. Another tonic AI can provide to a common headache of modern-day professionals is scheduling meetings. Your virtual assistant will seamlessly coordinate with your colleague’s AI to work out the perfect meeting time and place. Tired of sending late night and weekend emails? You’ll be able to power down that Blackberry as your personal chatbot handles all of your communications while you sleep or relax and intelligently alerts you based on the importance of the chat.

Photograph by Matt-Pritchard

AI is already saving countless hours of employee time in several sectors. AI is currently being used for insurance and loan underwriting and reading MRI scans. A few start-ups like Clara Labs or are offering email-based virtual assistants that can schedule meetings at a nominal cost. In other fields, AI for example can help lawyers save significant amounts of time by looking up an obscure court ruling written in everyday language from the 80s or 90s within a few seconds, by drafting contracts or even by predicting outcomes in some cases.

As future machines significantly leverage our power, thinking and most importantly time, resulting in enhanced productivity, countless possibilities and opportunities will materialise that could greatly improve our lifestyles. But will these gains come risk-free?

How will artificial intelligence shape the future of workforce?

It is a foregone conclusion by now that AI should boost employee productivity significantly and in turn, save a lot of time for people as certain tasks are migrated to machines impervious to sleep. So will this workforce transformation allow us four-day weekends or five-hour workdays?

Unfortunately not, as the nature of our jobs shift will likely shift to become more human centric. AI will free up time so that the next-generation employee spends more time to meet clients or stakeholders regularly, discuss their future requirements and build deeper, longer-lasting relationships.

The future employee will thrive on creativity and judgment, as AI-driven upheaval will place a higher premium on tasks such as the application of human experience and expertise and on critical business decisions, given AI-based engines will still likely be constrained by things such as a lack of enough data patterns and insufficient logical outcomes.  

The other question to ponder is if AI significantly reduces the time it takes to perform regular tasks, will modern-day luddites band together to threaten AI’s development due to the displacement of jobs? It is a somewhat a risk, considering the potential displacement AI could have on some parts of the job market. Medium-skilled jobs like truck drivers, secretaries, accountants, clerks, etc. are the most at risk of being made redundant by advances in AI. The skills that these jobs require – reading instructions or performing simple arithmetic that are mostly routine and predictive in nature – are mostly likely to be taken over by machines.

Photograph by Caroline Methot

Without a doubt, some jobs will be affected to the next wave of AI-based innovation. However, society should consider the net benefit of AI given its wider economic impact; trillions will be created in value as a result of the wider adoption of AI into business functions. In addition, because humans have so many “irreplaceable” skills, we will remain superior to machines in certain activities. Our creativity and imagination enables us to identify and pursue new lines of logical and intuitive thought, and come up with entrepreneurial ideas that give rise to new categories of companies and jobs.

Technological advances have always led to job creation in past industrial revolutions – those that design and operate the new machinery, for example – and this one will be no different with new category of jobs likely to be created. The entire app ecosystem, born after the advent of smartphones, is an example of an industry poised to skyrocket in the post-AI era. The sharing economy and related jobs should also grow as AI facilitates new ideas and business models.

Overall, the benefit AI will bring to societies will be substantial. And people should embrace “machine time” in the future rather than oppose it.

– Written by Sundeep Gantori