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The Future of Work: Colleagues and Co-bots

The Future of Work: Colleagues and Co-bots

From recruitment to retirement, technological advances are rapidly changing our working lives. With the McKinsey Institute predicting that up to half of all work activities globally could be automated by 2030, it’s not surprising that many of us feel apprehensive about what the future holds. So what can we do to harness the disruptive opportunities this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ will bring, and what role can universities play in preparing us all for jobs that don’t yet exist?  

Though machine systems now power our daily lives through smart technology, their potential large-scale, disruptive effect on the workplace is a major focus of research and public concern. Nearly a quarter of people recently surveyed by a new Commission on Workers and Technology in Great Britain think that their job will disappear in the next 10 years. 4 in 10 people are worried that their work will change for the worse as a result of automation.

Globally, the predictions are even more daunting, with China set to have the largest number of workers displaced – up to 100 million people if automation is adopted rapidly (Mckinsey Global). With reports asserting that technological unemployment will inflame economic insecurity and make employment more vulnerable, we asked three Nottingham experts how fearful they think we should actually be. 

“Jobs are changing; the relationship between individuals and the market is changing; and the ways in which we are part of large physical and virtual networks are all undeniably changing,” explains Professor Todd Landman, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Social Sciences. “Yet this fear that there won’t be enough future employment for humans is nothing new.

"Think about the Luddites here in Nottingham, breaking up the knitting frames during the Industrial Revolution because they were frightened by machines taking over the work of human beings. Historically, advances in technology have led to higher wages, longer life expectancy, faster growth and long-term societal benefits. The introduction of the pill and the washing machine can be tied to second-wave feminism for example, which ultimately changed the status quo and created improved equality laws.”

And yet reports of the potential destructive power of artificial intelligence are no longer the realm of science-fiction. With the world recently witnessing the first real ‘debate’ between a human and IBM AI system; leading business innovator Elon Musk warning that “artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nuclear weapons”; and biotechnology advances enabling us to fundamentally change our genetic code, it’s easy to feel unnerved.

Two robot hands reaching towards each other

“Firstly, the vast majority of the change we’re seeing in the workplace right now is down to machine learning and increasing digitisation, not artificial intelligence,” explains Professor Derek McAuley, Professor of Digital Economy and Horizon Director, Faculty of Science. “This is a steady trend that has been happening for decades, which occurs when it becomes more cost effective for a business to move from a human system to a digital system. ATMs replacing bank cashiers, or self-service supermarket checkouts are part of this process. 

“We’re also getting much better at linking systems together to share data and create a seamless customer experience, but artificial intelligence is something very different. Despite showcase events like IBM’s AI “Project Debater”, we remain a long way off from developing a reasoning, conscious artificial intelligence. Even sophisticated systems like Siri or Alexa, quickly become frustratingly rude if you ask them questions beyond the obvious. 

“What is surprising is how long it has taken us to get to this point. I first saw much of the ‘new’ technology coming onto the market now in labs over 25 years ago, and its implementation is still pretty limited. Those self-service checkouts aren’t using visual recognition systems yet for example.”

Despite showcase events like IBM’s AI “Project Debater”, we remain a long way off from developing a reasoning, conscious artificial intelligence.
From accounting to law, policing to retail, the impact of technology is evident. It’s no longer just repetitive physical or technical jobs that are at risk of displacement – cognitive tasks are also increasingly affected, impacting on the availability and nature of many graduate roles.

“The changes will be particularly noticeable in graduate positions where analysing and managing large amounts of information formed a first-step career responsibility, such as in entry-level legal roles,” explains Dr Nalayini Thambar, Director of Careers and Employability. “Another example is the hiring pattern of Goldman Sachs’ stock traders: down from 600 in the year 2000, to just two graduates in 2017, with the remaining work undertaken by 200 computers.”

Are humans becoming 'jobsolete'? 

Though some forward-looking cities are exploring mechanisms like basic universal income as a potential solution to the predicted economic disruptions, few argue that machines will render a human workforce obsolete.

“We’re already using machine learning and predictive analytics extensively across many sectors and professions, to look at huge amounts of data and extract the relevant information,” adds Professor McAuley, “but this doesn’t remove the human component from the process. Human judgement is needed when it comes to making important decisions. What happens to your right of appeal, for example, if you receive an automated speeding fine but it wasn’t you?

"Machines are excellent at filtering out the ‘noise’ within mass data, but in many cases, they require human input too. A security camera can detect motion and form, but a human needs to decide whether or not the presence is a real threat. It’s why autonomous cars are such an interesting concept – there, we are asking machines to make life or death decisions on our behalf, within a physical environment where humans and robots will need to safely co-exist.

"Anyone familiar with robotic production systems will know just how dangerous these environments actually are. So far, we have deliberately designed our systems to keep robots and humans separate, but autonomous vehicles changes all of this.” 

Robot arms working on a car in a industrial production workshop. iStock / xieyuliang

The role of universities 

So far, automation has created far more jobs than it has destroyed. While we can take comfort in the fact that there is likely to be enough work to sustain full employment to 2030 under most scenarios, even if the roles we do are very different to today, what no-one is debating is that the transition to a new way of working will be very challenging – matching, if not exceeding, the scale of shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing seen in the past.

One popular estimate is that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist (McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch). So how are universities preparing students today to flourish in a shifting jobs market? 

“The modern economy and society needs people who can engage in complex problem solving; critical thinking; creativity and innovation; people skills and management; coordinating and networking with others; emotional intelligence; sound judgment and cognitive flexibility,” explains Professor Landman. “These are some of the same skills recognised by the World Economic Forum in their report The Future of Jobs, which we develop at Nottingham through both academic rigour and extra-curricular opportunities.

"A degree gives you the tools to study the world through the eyes of theories, methods, data, analytical reasoning, narratives, stories, and the human dimension. This is the mindset we need to continue to hone as graduates.

"If the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook ‘fake news’ scandals tell us anything,” continues Todd, “it’s that we need well-educated, knowledgeable, and patient scholars, with the discernment to challenge the veracity and accuracy of (dis)information, who can provide real value to society”. 

It’s an argument that resonates strongly with others. “Despite the institutional spotlight on employability in the UK, often in response to higher undergraduate tuition fees, a narrative still prevails that ‘being academic’ and ‘being employable’ are parallel paths,” Dr Thambar adds. “My hope is that tensions around the purpose of higher education will start to dissipate as a transformational learning experience in its own right simultaneously equips students for their future career.”

The future may be uncertain but what’s clear is the need to develop those core skills – emotional intelligence, critical reasoning, and cognitive flexibility amongst others – that machines cannot yet master. It’s why we are working on new programmes that will help alumni to hone these skills and sustain their long-term employability.

Technology can, of course, be extraordinarily empowering, with greater connectivity opening up communities, markets and opportunities like never before. Cloud computing, fibre broadband speeds and personalised digital services mean that we can work effectively away from the traditional office environment and locate ourselves around the world.  Employers can tap into new parts of this increasingly mobile, global workforce while employees gain the flexibility to work around other commitments or just when they choose.

For women this can be particularly liberating and yet, with companies like Uber shaking up traditional industries and impacting workers’ rights, we must consider the long-term impact of shifting towards a piecemeal approach to work. For good or ill, the technology genie is out of the bottle. Change is inevitable. What is not, is how we choose to respond. 

"'Jobs for life’ just don’t exist anymore,” states Professor Landman. “I met a group of young graduates at an alumni networking event at Berenberg bank last year, all of whom were completely unfazed by the fact that they may only hold a job for a year or so. The key for alumni of all ages is to find your own motivation to keep learning and adapting, and to embrace the positives that come with needing to change career throughout your working life.”

Nottingham alumni attending our networking evening at Berenberg bank

Honing the skills to succeed   

The pressure is on to remain relevant throughout our careers to potential future employers. Yet few people surveyed by the Commission on Workers and Technology think the government, employers or trade unions are taking action to support workers as technologies change. So is there more that universities could be doing to help their alumni to upskill and develop? Reassuringly, the answer is yes.

“We first helped to launch your professional journey when you graduated with a world class degree,” explains Suzie Green, Alumni Relations Manager, “and now we can now help springboard your career further through our continued professional development (CPD) offering. From sector specific training courses delivered by our CPD experts to fantastic, practical support for entrepreneurs through our Hayden Green Institute and Business School, we’re investing in lifelong opportunities for our alumni community.”

Unlock your potential 

From biosciences to social work, continue to transform your talent with specialist training and executive education from our continuing professional development team.

Discover our upcoming CPD courses and opportunities 


Structured learning however, is just one of many paths towards up-skilling and network development. “Alumni events are a great place to make useful new connections,” adds Suzie. “Volunteering for the University can also be a really rewarding way to help meet your professional and self-development goals. We believe that your relationship with this University is for life – not just for the three or so years that you studied here.

"The future may be uncertain" continues Suzie, "but what is clear is the need to develop those core skills – emotional intelligence, critical reasoning, and cognitive flexibility amongst others – that machines cannot yet master. It’s why we are working on new programmes that will help alumni to hone these skills and sustain their long-term employability, just like we are doing for our current students.”

Robots and a human worker side by side

Technology will result in displacement in the workplace, yet playing to our strengths and using technology help bring people out of dangerous, dirty or repetitive tasks, could ultimately result in a more positive future for humanity. But what about our human impact on the systems we create? How much of ourselves are we putting into our machines? If we delegate complex decisions to AI, could we use maths as an equalising force within society?

“Machine bias is a critical area of research for us here at Nottingham,” explains Professor McAuley. “As with any new technology, artificial intelligence reflects the bias of its creators. Machines have no value judgement – to them, everything is just data.

"A good example is our recent work with the Durham police custody team, where an automated custody sergeant started showing prejudice towards people from lower income households. A human can see remorse but you can’t create a ‘remorse’ data point for a machine to learn from.

“Machine learning systems will illuminate the prejudices inherent within our society,” continues Professor McAuley. “And if these machines are making decisions that could lead to loss of liberty or financial penalties; or are preventing parts of society from accessing critical services, it’s even more vital to understand what data goes in and who wrote the algorithm, to ensure the end results really are fair and inclusive. And for that, we need intelligent, inquisitive humans with a strong moral compass. Universities have a vital role to play in making sure that’s the type of graduates we create."


Victoria Hodson, staff writerWords: Victoria Hodson (American and English Studies, 2005), Connect Staff Writer

Story-seeker and wielder of the red pen. Culler of superfluous words. Vintage fashion enthusiast and lazy countryside rambler. Inspired by big blue skies – forever dreaming of life by the sea.