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The futurist: Growing dangers of technological unemployment


In March, when Facebook announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, they not only put a giant stamp of approval on the technology, but they also triggered an instant demand for virtual reality designers, developers and engineers.

Virtual reality professionals were nowhere to be found on the list of hot skills needed for 2014, but they certainly will be for 2015.

The same was true when Google and Facebook both announced the acquisition of solar powered drone companies Titan and Ascenta respectively. Suddenly we began seeing a dramatic uptick in the need for solar-drone engineers, drone-pilots, air rights lobbyists, global network planners, analysts, engineers, and logisticians.

Bold companies making moves like this are instantly triggering the need for talented people with skills aligned to grow with these cutting edge industries.

Whether its Tesla Motors announcing the creation of a fully automated battery factory; Intel buying the wearable tech company Basic Science; Apple buying Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics; or Google’s purchase of Dropcam, Nest, and Skybox, the business world is forecasting the need for radically different skills than colleges and universities are preparing students for.

In these types of industries, it’s no longer possible to project the talent needs of business and industry five to six years in advance, the time it takes most universities to develop a new degree program and graduate their first class. Instead, these new skill-shifts come wrapped in a very short lead-time, often as little as three months.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun recently announced his solution, the NanoDegree, where short-course training is carefully aligned with hiring companies, and virtually everyone graduating within the initial demand period is guaranteed a job.

Udacity's NanoDegrees_are very similar to the Micro College programs being developed by the DaVinci Institute that can rapidly respond to swings in the corporate training marketplace. More about DaVinci's Micro College plans in the coming weeks.

Here’s why NanoDegrees and Micro Colleges are about to become the hottest of all the hot topics for career-shifting people everywhere.

The Growing Dangers of Technological Unemployment

Last weekend, Peter Diamandis, founder of Singularity University and the X-Prize Foundation, invited me to a two-day summit along with some of Silicon Valley’s best thinkers to discuss future jobs and the growing dangers of technological unemployment.

In Peter’s way of thinking, even though we are headed toward a world of abundance, having a significant loss of jobs due to robots and automation has the potential of causing a near term backlash.

Every time 10,000 people are laid off their jobs, it creates a glass-half-full-half-empty kind of dilemma.

The layoffs increase our pool of available human capital, but we are left with the question of who, what, when, where, and how to apply this available manpower. Our challenge, designing a social system for reintegrating these “dangling particles of talent,” will be to match personal interests, aptitude, and training to the mix in a way that efficiently leverages and empowers people.

During this transition period, a very real danger exists in the form of protests and repercussion from displaced workers. Those who blame their deteriorating job prospects and overall loss of opportunity on automation could indeed wage some form of war against technology.

Taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, and even airline pilots will eventually be supplanted by driverless forms of transportation. Construction workers, craftsmen, janitors, accountants, bankers, and retailers all run a very real risk of having their positions automated out of existence.

Recent protests and skirmishes involving Google’s employee buses could easily escalate into something worse and form the basis of a new-age Luddite rallying cry to slow down, even undermine, our future. With a combination of techno-sabotaging confrontations and pushing all the right labor-agenda political buttons, the fear of an unknown robot-infested future could take center stage as a rallying cry for top-of-the-mind policy-setting criteria, hampering, possibly even reversing, many of the recent advances we’ve made.

Even darker scenarios could play out as modern-day digital uprisings spread like wildfires turning the speed and capabilities of tech against itself. The damage caused by a single individual could be tantamount to an anti-tech ice age spreading its influence throughout the entire world.

The same Internet that delivers our news and heightens out awareness of the world around us can also be used to poison people’s thinking creating an anti-technology agenda that frames the conversation for the rest of the world.

Framing the Conversation First

No it’s not possible for the human race to actually “run out of work.” But the kind of skills needed to perform the “new work” will indeed change and without some form of retraining intervention, the techno-illiterates run a real danger of having their prospects permanently compromised.

The re-skilling process is only as bright as the glimmers of hope and well-illuminated career path at the end of each participant’s transitionary tunnel.

The assumption that low-skilled janitors, drivers and dockworkers cannot be retrained for more technical work is not only false, but the first of many social objections that will need to be overcome.

Rapid re-skilling programs designed to build individual competencies, one micro-capability at a time, coupled with hands-on apprenticeships and on-demand tutorial support, are all pieces of the learning environments that will be needed to elevate the caliber of workers to meet the vital workforce needs of tomorrow. 

Ironically, the STEM talents that have prevented most of these workers from landing today’s better paying jobs will be automated into the AI, artificial intelligence, operating systems of tomorrow’s most ubiquitous equipment and therefore play a less significant role.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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