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What are the jobs of the future, and can we prepare better?


Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have long dominated headlines and conversations. Technological innovations are growing exponentially, and this growth has widespread implications for the world’s workforce.

Online firms and digital natives such as Google and Facebook are at the frontier of AI, investing billions of dollars in technology that elevates their businesses and delivers unique solutions to consumers.

Management consultancy McKinsey estimates that such companies funnelled between $20 billion and $30 billion into AI in 2016, including significant activity in mergers and acquisitions. And these big players are not alone. Private investors are claiming a share, too, investing an estimated $4-5 billion during the same period. Meanwhile, private equity firms invested between $1 billion and $3 billion. As according to McKinsey, between 2013 and 2016 AI investment figures tripled.

While some AI investment is concentrated in Silicon Valley, activity isn’t isolated to the United States. Countries as diverse as Israel, Sweden and China are also investing heavily. China is of particular interest, having issued an ambitious policy blueprint that seeks to establish the country as the world’s primary AI innovation centre by 2030. Within the next 12 years, it forecasts that China’s AI industry could be worth $150 billion.

It is clear that there is universal vested interest in AI. Technology has already had a major impact on our personal lives. But while businesses, broadly speaking, have been utilizing technology for a while, it is only recently that the floodgates have truly opened, and we are now seeing the influence and impact of rapidly evolving AI and technology in our jobs on a personal level.

Adapting to smart work
Back in the 1980s, the German Government coined the term ‘Industry 4.0’ – the fourth Industrial Revolution. The idea recognised that work would become ‘smart’, and that the most successful individuals will be those that adapt.

Search any job site today and you’ll see posts seeking social media editors, digital content managers, online strategists… the list goes on. Companies today need an online presence in order to rise above their competitors and succeed, but the playing field is constantly changing. A few years ago, it was relatively easy for a company to attract 1,000 followers to their Facebook page. Today, achieving this figure is significantly tougher. And that’s where these new jobs come in – people with specialist knowledge are needed to boost a company’s visibility on the web; usually young people who are on top of Google’s changing algorithms, clued up on SEO and know the science behind a viral tweet

Even on an individual level, these skills are becoming increasingly valuable. Establishing and maintaining an online presence has become an essential part of life for upcoming generations in the world’s largest economies. Yet there is a disconnect between their experience and that of their parents, many of whom are still in the workforce.

For members of Generation Jones and Generation X, many modern jobs are unrecognisable; the idea of managing your digital footprint is foreign; and technology, for most, is not a fundamental part of life in the way it is for Millennials and, to a larger extent, Generation Z.

With a generation that has grown up with tech now entering the workforce, their skills and intuitiveness with technology is both being shaped by and informing a new era of jobs. Business leaders must adapt to attract employees and retain their customer base, but they are competing in an evolving job market. A new attitude to work is behind many Millennials pursuing entrepreneurial work – made easier by the interconnected nature of today’s workforce, where communication and networking is almost effortless. Knowingly or otherwise, these generations are part of the digital revolution. Even within the past 10 years, technology and AI has revolutionised the way many businesses operate, simultaneously making roles redundant and creating new jobs previously unheard of.

To succeed in the future jobs market, individuals must accept and immerse themselves in the digital world. To some, this point is contentious. Many object to the mining, use and sharing of personal data by big companies. Many of us have willingly shared data with Facebook, Amazon, Google and Uber, alongside countless others, but it is only now that the implications of this are being discussed in the public forum. Internet anonymity is no longer possible, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Upcoming generations share their data as a matter of course, making them more open to this new era of work. It is frequently older generations who object to the collection and use of their data by big corporations, even when such corps are using AI to make people’s lives easier.

Take Amazon as an example. A user signs in, searches through Amazon Prime and selects a film to watch. Next time that user logs in, Amazon suggests other films in similar genres that the user might also enjoy. It is a personal service being carried out by AI.

This idea is supported by the diminishing influence of the press. With social media accounts, brands can shape their own narrative, or even contest what’s being said about them elsewhere. Uber has frequently been in the press under unfavourable headlines, yet it still has tens of millions of users. Further, Uber is actually an employer of choice, with vast numbers clamouring to get a job with the ride-booking app.

And Uber itself is a company reliant on technology. It sits along countless other businesses utilising AI and creating new jobs in the global digital workspace.

The influence of AI has reached almost every industry – its effects can be seen in retail, with the rise of online shopping; in travel, where budget airlines can cut overheads by using online booking systems; in communication, with the immense popularity of channels such as WhatsApp, Skype and Slack; in hotels, with many struggling to compete against home-sharing site Airbnb; in entertainment, with viewers shunning traditional television in favour of Netflix and Amazon Prime; and, of course, in media industries, where news is written, shared and consumed in ways we could never have anticipated just a few decades ago.

Behind these success stories are vast teams of engineers, UX designers, product innovators, data researchers, coders, software analysts, digital content experts and analytics specialists. As smart as these systems are, a physical presence is still needed for when things go wrong. Furthermore, many customers still appreciate a personal interactive experience with a real person.

According to the OECD’s Skills for a Digital World report 2016, “Ensuring that everyone has the right skills for an increasingly digital and globalized world is essential to promote inclusive labour markets and to spur innovation, productivity and growth.” It goes on to detail the importance of equipping people with generic ICT skills, as well as ‘soft’ complementary skills, such as leadership, communication and teamwork – skills essential to the collaborative nature of many digital startups.

Of course, as well as jobs that will evolve alongside technology, there are entirely new jobs being created in industries that did not exist a few years ago.

Space tourism is a leading example. Jobs have already been created for employees of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, and these are ‘behind-the-scenes’ roles – when space tourism officially launches, there will be an entirely new category of front-of-house positions to be filled. Back on Earth, we will start to see jobs such as social media lawyers, civilian drone controllers and virtual teachers become increasingly common.

In 2016, The Independent newspaper listed 10 jobs that graduates will be applying for from 2016. These include a virtual habitat designer, an ethical technology advocate, a digital cultural commentator, an Internet of Things data creative, and a freelance biohacker. Also on the list is a personal content curator who helps users dip in and out of captured thoughts, memories, dreams and experiences at will, and a human body designer who can create customised human limbs, both fashionable and functional. Some of these may sound like science fiction, but with the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning and the widespread acceptance of technology by younger generations, science fiction is fast becoming reality.

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