Will the Future of Work Have Us in It?
Roopinder Tara posted on November 23, 2016 |
Autodesk’s Carl Bass, CEO, and Jeff Kowalski, CTO, happy to be in technology’s driver’s seats at Autodesk University 2016. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Autodesk’s Carl Bass, CEO, and Jeff Kowalski, CTO, happy to be in technology’s driver’s seats at Autodesk University 2016. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Jeff Kowalski, CTO at Autodesk, is making humans look pathetic at Autodesk University 2016 in Las Vegas. We seem to be losing at every game we have invented. He pointed to checkers. Okay, how hard can that be? But then, there’s chess, which fell to IBM’s Big Blue in 1997. Not to mention bridge, Othello and the contestants in Jeopardy! that were beaten by IBM’s Watson in 2011. Earlier this year, Google’s artificial intelligence (AI)–enabled AlphaGo computer beat champion Lee Sedol at Go, a 2,500-year-old game that’s more complex than chess and was said to have required human intuition.

 

Disruption: Sounds Better than Apocalypse

“I can't wait to see what happens to the auto companies,” said Carl Bass, who leads Autodesk, arguably the most technologically astute company in the design and engineering software industry.

Bass cited his big three disrupters for Big Auto:

  1. Car sharing (think Uber)
  2. Self-driving cars
  3. Electric-powered trains
Uber’s self-driving cars hit the roads in Pittsburgh in September 2016. (Image courtesy of Uber.)
Uber’s self-driving cars hit the roads in Pittsburgh in September 2016. (Image courtesy of Uber.)
Numbers one and two are not unrelated. Uber, which has disrupted the taxi and limo service worldwide, is not content with turning anyone with free time and a late-model car into part-time cabbies. It’s already plotting to replace them. Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars has been driving around Pittsburgh since September 2016 and will soon be coming to a city near you. In its announcement, Uber attempts to mollify its drivers by telling them the future will be a “mix—with services provided by drivers and self-driving Ubers.” And the company will need even more humans to maintain these cars, which will run 24 hours a day.

No doubt elevator operators were told the same thing when elevators went automatic.

What happened to this guy? Do we care? (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)
What happened to this guy? Do we care? (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)
 

A Panel for Tech’s Sake

The Future of Work panel, preceding Kowalski and Bass, assembled a few technophiles. As you would expect, the ensuing discussion was mostly pro-technology in the workplace. All seemed to be glad to be in the right place at the right time, wizards of technology as they were, and all were optimistic about the increasing role of technology in the future. They seemed safe in their chosen positions—like professional athletes asked if their sport had been good to them. But if you listened hard enough, a few discordant notes were heard.

“We love technology, but…” Future of Work panel at Autodesk University 2016. From left, Erin Bradner of Autodesk, David Weightman of University of Illinois, Ryan Kelley of MakeTime, Mike Haley of Autodesk and Randy Swearer of Autodesk. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
“We love technology, but…” Future of Work panel at Autodesk University 2016. From left, Erin Bradner of Autodesk, David Weightman of University of Illinois, Ryan Kelley of MakeTime, Mike Haley of Autodesk and Randy Swearer of Autodesk. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
When asked what they might do differently, Erin Bradner from Autodesk, the only woman on the panel, said she’d study art. “I would go even further right-brain,” said Bradner.

“If I were to do it again, I think I would not go to college. I’d be a plumber. I’d have no debt. I would not be outsourced,” said Ryan Kelley, who handles operations at MakeTime, expressing pedestrian insecurity not normally associated with being so high up on the tech food chain.

And does technology devalue seniority? “I used to look for the senior engineer,” said a panelist. “Now I look for interns.”

 

Why Can’t They All Be Computers?

For technologists, the ultimate technology is a computer. The computer that powers a car, or robot, is absolutely superior to a human. A technologist can relate to a computer-driven machine. A self-driving car won't have one drink too many. A robot will not take time off or kvetch about low pay. Both will be incredibly faster and quicker thinking. They’ll be cheaper in the long run too, bet the technologists.

 

But We Are One of You—Why Don’t You Like Us?

To a techie, a human being is the weak link. Even if the public holds the astronaut in the highest adulation, techies know him as the weak link—and a big expensive one. The money spent in sending a human into deep space and returning it still alive takes enormous care and expenditure. Damn human needs to breathe and eat. It makes waste; it requires constant attention. Plus, it will cost you your job if it even gets nicked. God help you if the life support systems fail. Astronauts getting the glory is like giving a baby credit for being pushed in a stroller.

Technology is closer to its rightful place in the sun with aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has eliminated the fighter pilot in most missions, opting for drones for everything from reconnaissance to attack. That fighter pilots are still used for critical missions may only be due to technology that is not quite ready yet.

 

The Ultimate Riding Experience

The priests of technology still have to rely on humans at many—too many—times. Say thanks to your Uber driver who delivers you to the airport, but you wonder how long he or she has to put up with all that human interaction. The small talk is so annoying, hearing about how many times he’s been to the airport already today and how Uber lets him make payments on his nice car but stiffs him on rates and doesn’t make tipping easy. Well, his days are numbered. He’s the weak link. You were only half-listening as you thumbed through your emails and wishing it was your music that could be played in his car.

But to engage a technologist on the plight of Uber drivers (post self-driving vehicles) is likely to get you a response like, “Oh well—people have to keep up with the times,” and a condescending look reserved for tech weaklings. “Do we want to keep taking ferries when we can zip along a bridge? Hey, ferry operators, sorry about that bridge. But not really.”

 

Giving Up on Humans Yet?

Humans, who have existed in their current design for about 200,000 years, have failed to become any stronger and are only marginally faster and not necessarily smarter (if you consider all the trouble we get ourselves into). Now contrast that to the silicon-based life form. The computer, which sprang from World War II research, is getting faster at an exponential rate (Moore’s Law). It’s getting smarter (AI, deep learning and machine learning). It’s getting stronger (robots).

Witnessed by its creator, the technologist, humans are standing still. They serve only as consumers of what computers will produce and the service computers will provide.

 The Executioner Cometh

In business, there is the cliché of a manager who fires all of his staff to reduce costs only to put himself out of a job. Is that the path that technologists are on?

Technologists are fond of pointing to all the tech jobs the new tech economy will provide. However, if they mean developer jobs, many of those are going to hundreds of thousands of native Indians and Chinese tech workers on H-1B visas in the United States. Harbored in acres of cubicles in almost every large software company, they constitute the tech equivalent of a sweat shop. The “find the cheap labor” corporate mindset that has been applied universally to textile and manufacturing has also succeeded in pervading tech. And those that have come West are the lucky ones. Most tech laborers stay within their native border—having to be content with a U.S. company logo on their laptop bag.

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