February 22, 2018
A New York Times article published on February 6th told the story of Doug Schifter, a New York City yellow cab driver who had taken his own life in front of City Hall. In a Facebook post, Schifter – who was in his early 60s – condemned city and state politicians and ride-sharing apps like Uber that had “de-professionalized” his career of over 30 years and made it impossible for him to earn a living. The Times article described Doug as a “casualty” of the gig economy.
I know this is a rather depressing way to begin a blog post, but I believe that in Schifter’s death there is a lesson that applies to the global workforce, a force that is quickly changing due to digital disruption. And as enthusiasts, providers, facilitators and users of emerging tech in enterprise, it is important for us to heed that lesson.
Uber and its rivals have been incredibly disruptive to the taxi industries in cities around the world. But the rideshare service, a concept realized with algorithms and a mobile app, didn’t eliminate jobs so much as influence supply and demand, increasing supply while offering a convenient solution to the same needs served by the cab industry. Yes, Uber takes business away from traditional livery drivers, but the answer is not to ban Uber (as some European countries have done) in order to protect those workers. Innovation should be embraced (and regulated,) not resisted.
Fast-advancing technologies like automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and Augmented and Virtual Reality – the next wave of digital disruption in enterprise – do not signify the end of the human workforce as people fear. They do, however, present a challenge requiring us to rethink the skilled workforce and the role of the worker in every workplace and industry. As some jobs become obsolete, others require less human labor than before, and new higher-skilled jobs are created, the workforce will need to adapt. This task does not fall solely on the Doug Schifters of the world; as a community it is our responsibility to prevent the kind of toll that has left many feeling hopeless in the face of innovation.
From the Industrial Revolution to the rise of the Internet, technology has periodically displaced positions in the job market; but from each new wave of technological innovation springs new jobs, different jobs, even entirely new career fields. Today, jobs are being lost to climate change, globalization and, yes, automation, but we’re not headed for mass unemployment. In fact, there are millions of unfilled jobs in the U.S. right now due to a shortage of qualified applicants. The problem isn’t that robots are taking all the jobs; it’s that the nature of work is changing. The jobs that are declining are largely low- and middle-skilled ones, with new employment opportunities requiring higher skill levels. So, while humans will not disappear from the factory altogether – human ingenuity, emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt are irreplaceable, after all – they will need a skills upgrade, fast. I call this recasting the workforce, and it will be accomplished with digital information overlaid on the physical world and immersive simulations of real-world scenarios.
When it comes to jobs, technology is both the disruptor and the solution. What happens to the employee who is replaced on the assembly line? Or the plumber who has less work because potential customers can fix a clogged drain themselves by watching a Virtual Reality tutorial at home? You see it’s not just automation impacting jobs: AR, VR and MR (or XR for short) are de-professionalizing skilled trades à la Uber by lowering the barrier of entry into those career fields. We often talk about AR glasses as a solution for quickly training new workers on the job, but the next generation of computing may also be the reason there is less work to go around in some professions.
For those who do lose their jobs or become unable to support themselves doing what they did BDT (Before Digital Transformation,) how do they adapt? How can we expect worried workers to view the arrival of ARKit as a bright sign for the future when there’s a social and pop culture narrative that demonizes new technologies like robotics, AI and XR? Or when the tech community undersells the technology as a medium for entertainment and a way to view Ikea furniture in your living room before you buy? To the average person, Augmented and Virtual Reality are still really far-out and irrelevant to their problems in life. We need to therefore convey the true potential of XR—XR needs a big PR boost before it becomes as feared as automation, before it’s seen as another job killer, another enabler of the gig economy.
Augmented and Virtual Reality are career advancement tools that should assuage workers’ fears of the “rise of the machines.” By augmenting the human capacity to learn and be productive, AR and VR enable career mobility – upwards and across professional and industry lines – at a time when emerging technologies like automation are putting pressure on the workforce to become more flexible. And though it sounds counterintuitive, digital realities are critical to minimizing the impact of digital disruption because they can help displaced workers move on from the jobs that aren’t coming back by facilitating on-demand, just-in-time training in new, higher-skilled roles.
So, to the current and future ex-factory workers, to industry veterans trying to work through the disruption in their fields, and to those daunted by entering a job force that demands higher and higher skills: Put on a pair of smart glasses. Don’t let current device and software limitations fuel doubts and resentment. And to enterprise technology decision makers: It’s time to pay attention to consumer attitudes towards XR, because today’s consumers will be the ones to fill the ranks of your workforces. As robots assume the repetitive and physically strenuous jobs, their human predecessors will use XR technologies to up their skills, prepare for new jobs, shift positions in their companies, or even change occupations entirely. It’s truly a new wave of mobility.
The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.