With every industrial revolution comes shifts to social, economic, environmental and political systems, paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and work.
While the first three industrial revolutions brought the world steam power, electricity, mass production and digitisation, it is expected that as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, it will disrupt almost every business sector at an unprecedented rate.
Artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, synthetic biology and robotics, for example, will supersede our digital progress and blur the lines between physical, digital and biological domains.
The Netflix original documentary American Factory offers a glimpse into the future and how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already changing the way we work. The documentary explores the economic and social issues that converge when a Chinese company Fuyao moves into a former General Motors plant in Ohio.
Delving into the advancements and opportunities about the new world of work, the documentary is a reminder of how globalisation and automation will replace many human jobs and subsequently increase the demands on productivity and profit.
So how do we balance the ‘rise of the machines’ without compromising the working lives of billions of people globally nor the business bottom line?
The revolution is here
As we move towards a world where connected technology is the norm, linking our lives between digital domains and offline reality, Professor Simon Wilkie, Dean of the Monash Business School, is optimistic about the impact digital technologies will have on the future of work.
We are now in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, he says. Just as the First Industrial Revolution saw unskilled workers (and their children), working day and night in England’s “dark, satanic mills”, so almost every contemporary workplace is now being transformed by cloud computing, advances in AI, cheap sensors and ubiquitous digital connectivity.
The level of technological innovation now taking place has not been seen since the early 1900s, which saw the advent of powered flight, the radio, telephone and the internal combustion engine.
And yes, these have been difficult years for many, he concedes. People are losing jobs and the pay gap is growing between those who have been able to surf the digital wave and those who have not.
“AI is not yet sophisticated enough to replace human beings – and won’t be in the foreseeable future.” – Professor Jon Whittle
But, past industrial revolutions have shown us that painful disruption can bring unforeseen benefits. For example, labour laws eventually banned children from working in mines and mills – and the free, universal education we now accept as a human right, was introduced.
Professor Wilkie foresees a future in which work will be “more personally rewarding”, with a greater emphasis “on creativity and human connection”.
So, AI is a good thing?
Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology and Co-Director of the Monash Data Futures Institute, Professor Jon Whittle, agrees: “AI is not yet sophisticated enough to replace human beings – and won’t be in the foreseeable future”.
Instead, the shift will be from a human-only activity to a collaborative one, between human and machine.
While the future of work looks bright, Professor Whittle identifies the biggest danger which could arise from automation. “Arguably it’s not the changes in the nature of work, but changes in the nature of our society,” he said.
There have been countless examples of unethical behaviours programmed into machines. Professor Whittle believes that as a society if we are not careful, it will automate large parts of society in an irresponsible way.
The Monash Data Futures Institute partnership with the Australian Federal Police is an example of how machine learning is being used positively; to automatically detect illegal images in seized devices. During this process, a police officer is still closely involved, but at a higher level of involvement.
Indeed, in this case, there are constructive effects of automation – whereby machine learning reduces the impact of mental health cases experienced by police officers as they trawl through potentially graphic material without warning.
Professor Whittle says we need to develop machine intelligence that is as diverse, inclusive, respectful and socially responsible as the best of our human beings. “This is the real challenge – if we pull that off, we’ll end up with a more utopian version of the future of work”.
Humans and robots in harmony
Professor Wilkie predicts that in the years to come, individuals who are able to complement the services provided by smart devices will thrive.
“The tasks that make us human – communications and persuasion, creativity and invention, care and empathy will be rewarded. The people who treat AI and automation as a tool and expect to learn new tools will thrive,” he said.
In the future, AI programs will do more routine and repetitive tasks, while complimentary roles will arise for individuals with emotional intelligence (EI). This emphasis on placing humans at the centre of automation will be seen in the types of skills in demand from employers.
“The people who treat AI and automation as a tool and expect to learn new tools will thrive.” – Professor Simon Wilkie
As Professor Whittle explains: “some aspects of human intelligence will be automated, however, the world is still full of people – and the real winners in future job markets will be those with both the IQ to get the most out of working with machine intelligence, but also the EI to work with people”.
AI for Social Good – how Monash is paving the way
As more manual processes become automated, and as technology continues to accelerate, so will automation. The Monash Data Futures Institute brings together data science and AI research to explore the potential for AI and data science to positively impact the world.
From the future of teaching and the responsible integration of AI technologies into classrooms to support personalised, learner-driven education, to partnering with the Australian Federal Police on the use of AI in monitoring criminal activity on the dark web, the Monash Data Futures Institute is empowering the next generation of academics to use AI and data science for social good.
Andrew Dingjan, is Senior Manager, Strategy & Engagement, Monash Data Futures Institute