Man vs machine: Who wins?

Next time you have a tough day at work, think about the growing army of unemployed. Three years of global crisis conditions have created a pool of some 200 million without work, and the International Labour Organisation estimates another 400 million jobs will have to be created over the next decade to avoid further rises in the jobless rate. No wonder, then, that society reacts harshly when Anglo-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, announces plans for driverless trains and progress on a robotics trial that will see more traditional jobs disappear, to be replaced by fewer, more highly skilled roles. Innovation is like that: technology makes inroads into areas once dominated by humans – and humans move on, willingly or not. “Computers are getting much better at pattern recognition, complex communication and many other skills,” say MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. “That may be good for businesses — but it’s not always good for individual employees, who may not be able to adapt as quickly as technology is advancing. How can you prepare yourself — and, perhaps, your children — for careers in a fast-changing economy filled with ever-faster, ever-smarter computers?” According to GE CEO, Jeff Immelt, it’s a matter of using technology to enable people to do the best possible job. In the latest Harvard Business Review, Immelt muses on GE’s decision to reverse course and start reinvesting in American manufacturing operations after years of outsourcing and offshoring. “Regaining our competitiveness, delivering value to our customers and generating shareholder return would require not just an investment but an entirely new approach – one centred on ensuring not only that we had the best people but also that we empowered them to execute.” For individual workers, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s advice is to work on skills that help you couple the best of human creativity with computer power. Their list of hot future skills: applied maths and statistics, negotiation and group dynamics, good writing, framing problems and solving open-ended problems, persuasion, and human interaction and nurturing. Computers, they say, “can’t think ‘outside the box.’ And they’re not very empathic.”

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