The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation
Darrell M. West
Brookings Press (May 2018)
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson
I agree with Darrell West that various technologies are altering and leading us to an automated society. “In this book, I explain the impact of these emerging technologies on work, education, politics, and public policy.” He examines drones; reviews advances in AI (e.g. machine learning); explores the increasing reliance [dependence?] on sensors (e.g. The Internet of Things); argues that at a time of accelerating technology, we need to reconsider/reevaluate the ramifications of all this for the labor force as well as rethink the concept of work itself; strongly advocates lifetime learning to accommodate constant change; questions whether the U.S. political system “is up to the challenge of a transition to a digital economy; and in the final chapter reviews his specific recommendations with regard to robots, AI, and automation.
As I read and then re-read West’s recurrent emphasis on the importance of practical education, I was again reminded of Alvin Toffler’s prediction in his classic, Future Shock (1984): “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” With rare exception, only those actively and productively engaged in machine learning will gain the literacy to which Toffler refers.
To West’s substantial credit, most of the information, insights, and counsel he provides will be invaluable both to those who manage and to those who are managed in the workplace of the future. Like customers, employees have more and better choices than ever before that must be accommodated. Their needs, interests, issues, and preferences have significant implications and potential consequences. In turn, employees must recognize — and appreciate — the challenges that managers face each day in a business world that has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember.
These are among Darrell West’s concluding remarks and deserve close attention and frequent consideration: “The United States and the world are at a major inflection point. The increasing adoption of digital technologies and frequent changes in business models have fueled a dramatic changed in the U.S. Employment landscape and an increase in economic inequality. Inequality in turn threatens the political process by making it difficult to address underlying social and economic issues. As noted by Rachel Nuwer in her analysis of how world civilizations fail [for BBC News], ‘Disaster comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them.'” Karl Marx addressed several of the same concerns in his three-volume classic work, Das Kapital (1859) as did George Orwell more recently in Animal Farm (1945).
I commend Darrell West on the abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel that he provides in The Future oif Work. In the final chapter, his recommendations with regard to various economic and political reforms are research-driven as his 27 pages of Notes clearly indicate. Those who read this brilliant book would be well-advised to highlight key passages and keep a lined notebook near at hand in which to record their own notes as well as questions, comments, and page references.
If you are in need of a single source to increase your understanding of the future of work, look no further. This is a “must read.”