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The future of work

January 21, 2015

The rapid advancement of algorithms – as seen in emerging technologies like the Internet of Things and robotics – is forecast to spur revolutionary change in employment over the next decades. Janna Anderson shares this and other findings of reports she co-authored for Pew Research in 2014.

We surveyed 1,896 technology experts and netizens for a series of reports on the likely future impacts of emerging technologies on work and employment. The consensus is that industries will be transformed by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, altering workflows and changing the roles of workers.

However, respondents were split when asked whether AI and robotics will “displace more jobs than they have created by 2025.” While 48 percent argued that more jobs will be lost, 52 percent said they have faith that as current jobs are eliminated, different ones will emerge.

The survey,conducted for Pew Research and Elon University, also gathered opinions about digital life in 2025 and the likely impact of the Internet of Things.

While unmanned and self-driving vehicles, smartphones and new types of work robots are grabbing headlines now, smarter robots, sensors, actuators, embedded systems and invisible digital agents are expected to take over or alter a vast amount of human work over the next few decades. In other words, they’ll connect, build, move and remove things, handle logistics and carry out most transactions. In addition, the way goods and services are delivered is expected to evolve significantly thanks to advances in interconnectivity,  transportation systems and data aggregation and analytics.

Experts' predictions

Advances in deep-learning algorithms are spurring the most change. Andrew Ng chief scientist for Baidu, says the largest brain model in 2010 had about 10 million connections, by early 2011 it was 1 billion and in 2013 it was 10 billion. Quantum computing that might magnify success in rapid problem solving is said to soon become a reality.

Big thinkers like Peter Diamandis, Vivek Wadhwa and Ray Kurzweil, to name a few, say such innovation will flip the world from an era of scarcity to a time of abundance, predicting unlimited energy, food, clean water and increasing human life extension. On the other hand, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass has famously declared that the factory of the far future will only have two employees: a man and a dog. “The man will be there to feed the dog,” he said. “The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

While we will not arrive at that future for some time, our programming of smart machines and agents is transforming the workplace and people’s lives.

Fewer – and new and different – jobs

If in the future, networked smart systems and smart machines were to do all of the programmable tasks in society, even if the standard human work week were to be reduced by half, it is expected there will be fewer jobs. 

But at the same time, new and different jobs will emerge and the skills needed for them will continually evolve.

Life will be lived differently, and work and the rhythm of daily life will be redefined. According to the experts, one thing is of primary concern in this future: Reinventing human systems – social, educational, political, and economic – so that they can prepare people to productively evolve even as our tools do.

How do we keep people happily occupied in roles of value to themselves and society? And how do we ensure that those controlling the algorithms are capable of managing complex, evolving, networked systems in such a way that they advance humanity in a manner that is fair? Ultimately, we can control our own destiny, the experts say, through the choices we make.

As one respondent urged, “Policymakers and corporations have to look beyond the next quarter or even the next year, and so do schools, because the new jobs will demand skills and training that we’re not teaching now.”


Text: Janna Anderson
Photo: Shutterstock


  • Professor of Emerging Media, Elon University and Director of the Imagining the Internet Center
  • Co-authored “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs” a study by the Pew Research Center published in August 2014.