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A look into an automated future, with Mat Henshall from ThoughtWorks 27.10.2016

Change is happening. The only question now, is what impact it will have. Will it cost jobs? Will it save lives? What will the future look like? No matter the impacts that inevitably will eventuate from the Internet of Things, technology shifts and connected devices—ThoughtWorks’ Mat Henshall believes, like John F Kennedy before him, that if we’re only looking at the past and the present, we’re going to be left behind when the future arrives. Which may be sooner than you think.

As part of Spark Festival Australia, we hosted ThoughtWorks’ Head of Things, Mat Henshall, for a thought-provoking presentation on how technology is fundamentally changing how we work and how we live.

We began at the turn of the last century, in New York, where the 60ft high piles of horse manure was a catalyst for serious change. As the second industrial revolution evolved the transport industry, Henshall sees a similar parallel emerging today—not with a shift from horses to cars, but from human-operated vehicles to automated transport.

With the first automated cars in the planning, countries like Singapore already having driverless taxis, and a transport industry that employs millions at threat of disruption, or redundancy—not just in our lifetime, but in the next 10 years—we urgently need to consider how the automation of traditional industries will change not just employment, but the social fabric of our society itself.

Henshall drew attention to a few key statistics: ‘96% of the time our cars are parked; of the 4% of time the car is actually being driven, 30% of the time we spend driving is spent looking for a car park. If cars are automated, suddenly there is no need to park a car in the city, and the way we use cars will change.

This change could be both positive and negative. Positive, because unlike common perception, the highest cause of deaths of young men in the US is through motor vehicle accidents: ‘we’re talking about 30,000 young lives a year, and that’s only in the US.’ But what about the jobs that will be lost—the bus drivers, the taxi drivers, the parking lot operators. Whole industries will change, and much of the labour market will be reshaped by the automation of industries.

Having recently visited a completely automated manufacturing plant in China, Henshall suggested that manufacturing may soon return to local markets: ‘but what people don’t realise is that it’s just as cheap to have manufacturing onshore if it’s done by robots—that doesn’t bring back the manufacturing jobs, though.’

In some areas such as farming, where there is a global labour shortage, having robots perform the more physical jobs at a fraction of the cost, and often at a better standard, can only be a positive evolution.

But in many other industries, increasing automation will not be a welcome change for employees. ‘Even white collar professions are looking at where they can replace humans with technology, with law firms in the US already looking to reduce paralegals and attorneys where robots can perform the tasks.’

So what is the conclusion? Is this rapid shift towards an automated world a good thing, or is it going to further widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor?

According to Henshall, that’s really up to all of us. ‘As the leaders of tech companies, as innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s up to all of us to think about how we want technology to shape our future.’

He suggests that when pondering the possibilities of this new reality, we should keep our focus on one thing—human need. ‘Marketers will tell you all the time to think about what the consumers want, and in this instance they’re right. How technology is used will come down to what we as humans need; in most instances, it’s more time.’

To finish, Henshall brought us back to the horses and carts where he began, asking us to remember what happened to the carriage-makers. Will the next generation look back and wonder what happened to a human labour force, the taxi and bus drivers, the farmhands? Only time will tell, but to make sure that our own futures are positive, it’s important that, according to Henshall, ‘we are all futurists’—rather than devote our energy entirely to what’s happening in the now, or even what shaped our workforce and lives in the past, it’s important that our eyes and our focus are firmly on the future.

Mat Henshall joined us as part of Spark Festival. His presentation had us all thinking about how technology will bring about rapid change, and what the future may look like—not in some science fiction fantasy, but in a very near reality for many of us.

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