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PTC LiveWorx 2019 - Paul Roehrig of Cognizant on robots, AR, and the great jobs debate

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 13, 2019
I'm always a sucker for a robots-and-jobs debate. This time, I joust with jobs optimist and future of work expert Paul Roehrig. But Roehrig brought a LiveWorx twist, tying IoT, AI and augmented reality to the discussion.

Paul Roehrig Cognizant LiveWorx

In my day one PTC Live Worx review, I honed in on views from PTC Augmented Reality customers. But it's really the intersection of technologies (IoT, AR, AI) where the story gets fascinating. Nowhere is that more true than the future of work, a topic that gets a provocative look via the Cognizant report 21 Jobs of the Future.

So when Cognizant pitched me on an interview with Cognizant Head of Strategy and future of work author Paul Roehrig, I took the proverbial cheese.

Readers know I trend dystopian on our robotic futures, but I like to spar with the optimistic view - and who better than Roehrig, the co-author of What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data.

Fear not the bot - 21 jobs of the future

When I caught up with him, Roehrig was fresh off his first LiveWorx talk, "Fear Not the Bot: 21 Jobs of the Future Will Require Human Skills & Sensibilities." What inspired this?

A lot of the news, the zeitgeist, is overwhelmingly negative about the impact of technology on jobs... The whole narrative has been around destruction. But there's actually a story around productivity improvements.

So the application of AI and the application of industrial Internet of Things drives productivity up. And then there are new jobs that twenty years ago wouldn't exist - they are all based on how technology is impacting business and society.

Two views inform Roehrig's optimistic jobs outlook:

  • Almost all jobs will change, but they are likely to get more productive.
  • New jobs will emerge based on the intersection of technology, society, humans and work.

The "21 jobs report" takes this forward. Roehrig:

That report tries to look a little bit farther out and say, "What are some of those jobs? And how are they likely to emerge over time?"

For the 21 jobs report, Cognizant focuses on jobs that will emerge in the next ten years. They ruled out intruiging-sounding job titles beyond their ten year scope, such as:

carbon farmers, 3-D printing engineers, avatar designers, cryptocurrency arbitrageurs, drone jockeys, human organ developers, teachers of English as a foreign language for robots, robot spa owners, algae farmers, autonomous fleet valets, Snapchat addiction therapists, urban vertical farmers and Hyperloop construction managers.

Actually, I think we could use Snapchat addiction therapists now; 3D printing engineers might be pretty close behind. So how did the 21 jobs in the report make the cut? The authors believe these jobs will emerge in the next ten years, and will "create mass employment, providing work for the many people in offices, stores and factory floors displaced or disrupted by technology."

Some of the jobs are fairly tech-centric, such as "Master of Edge Computing" and "Augmented Reality Builder," but others span many skills, such as "Genetic Diversity Officer" and "Man-Machine Teaming Operator". Then there is the "Walker/Talker." I liked the shorthand job description: "Talking with customers, walking with customers. This may involve handling a customer's dog." Even this human-focused job will be heavily tech dependent. As per the mock-up job writeup:

Using our CONNECT platform, the [Walker/Talker] can sign on or off at your convenience (in the way that Uber drivers do) and work whenever it suits you... CONNECT – with its AI-driven listening software (part of the phone-based app employees leverage) – provides conversational prompts based on previous conversations, providing continuity of service among multiple walker/talkers who engage with our customers.

"If you want to beat the bot, be a better human"

I told Roehrig these types of jobs show the human side becoming more pronounced. He said:

We have another piece called the Work Ahead. I guess the net of it is, if you want to beat the bot, you should be a better human. The idea is to double down on skills that humans do really well, that bots or silicon doesn't do really well. Things like show empathy, or curiosity. Creativity. Machines can help, but they're not going to be able to do that.

"Be more human" is good career advice these days, but only if it resembles what I call transcendent human qualities: the best in humanity. Listening, creating. Throwing temper tantrums or discriminating against those who don't fit your mold? Well, machines can easily do that type of people-behaving-badly stuff; a video of a robot having a temper tantrum just went viral. So it's not enough just to relax into our rough edges. To be desirable-to-hire people, we also have to be exceptional people.

So: 1. Become more human. 2. Be versatile about integrating machines into your craft where they do their job better than you. There's a flip side, however. As I put it: be militant about automating the routine and the repetitive in your work. Automate your own job before your manager does.

One thing I like about Roehrig's optimism: it's informed by research and on-site client work. During their digital projects, Roehrig and colleagues have learned it's hard to replace an entire job with a machine; jobs are too varied and complex, loaded with barely-repeatable processes. I tend to agree with that optimistic view of the next decade or so.

But I part ways after that. I believe some populations could eventually be displaced faster than they can be retrained, especially if they are somewhat rural or geographically isolated. I used the truck driver example with Roehrig, but I could have used lower-level retail, or coal miner. Yes, all industrial revolutions have brought disruption. But why not attempt to minimize the collateral damage? And in the longer view, I'm not confident machines will stay in their lane. I think machines might wind up pretty darn good at being human.

Unlike some, Roehrig doesn't gloss over this:

I don't mean to paint this sort of kind of rose-colored. But I do think that optimism is warranted. Where I would disagree is there are some research findings saying this is going to lead to wholesale decimation of 50% of all jobs. And that is not working out to be true.

So will some jobs go away? The answer is yes. Things that are highly routinized, data-intensive. Things that are more repetitive, yes. Most jobs are comprised of a set of tasks. It's a very rare job that fulfills all the criteria to be automatable.

Roehrig finds that automation is having almost the opposite effect:

What's happening is when automation is deployed, it frees up people to do other work, more human-centric work. More complex problem solving. More things that require manual dexterity. So there are a lot of nuances that are pretty impactful.

Marty the robot enters the debate

To counter Roehrig, I used the example of a local grocery store chain that doubled down on automation. Though Marty the Robot isn't going to replace anyone's job just yet, given he can't even do shelf inventory. For now, Marty just moves around like a clumsy dork, looking endlessly for spills that a human worker will then clean up. But that will surely change.

That same store has ramped up self-checkout, eliminated grocery bagger roles at night, and is clearly looking at automation as a ruthless efficiency play. No sign of any new customer-facing hires, like nutrition advisors.

Roehrig had a pretty good response to that: shop somewhere else. If one business is over-emphasizing the efficiency side, vote with your wallet. He's right: at the moment, there are other groceries with a full service mentality. In particular, my local food co-op has no intention of bringing robots in. Roehrig also concedes not all businesses are going about this the right way:

One of the key things to keep in mind is just how early we are in this macro-level shift. It's very early innings. We've got machines behaving badly, because we're not applying ethics and thinking about what are the unintended consequences.

I think "jobs optimists versus pessimists" is the wrong way to frame the argument. To those who tell me my pessimism could lead to passivity via a nihilistic hopelessness, I would say: I agree. But the optimistic view poses the same danger. If this is just another historical cycle of job displacement, ultimately spawning more jobs and increasing productivity, we risk the passivity of assuming everything is going to work itself out. And while that may be true for some, comfort is selfish.

What matters is not our beliefs on robots but our actions: to improve our own skills, to study, to educate - to break down the digital divide where we can. And there, Roehrig agrees: "That's what the books are about; that's what the white papers are about." So for now, we meet in the pragmatic middle.

The wrap - augmented reality job futures

But that leaves Augmented Reality. Roehrig's next LiveWorx presentation was "The future of augmented reality is the future of work." So how does AR fit into the jobs mix? Roehrig believes the compound impact of tech goes beyond a single innovation. He cited a phrase of David Rose's, enchanted objects (Rose delivered a guest keynote at LiveWorx).

I love that, Enchanted Objects. Enchanting the farmer, the tractor, the field, the sky, the crop, the animal. And then injecting AI and analytics into that sensor enablement.

And that's where AR enters the picture: it opens up how we can experience technology. As Roehrig told IDG:

When Augmented Reality connects with the Internet of Things (IoT), and sensor data can be ‘seen’ and acted on by enhanced workers, entirely new businesses and jobs will rise.

It's not about another trendy buzzword. It's about the convergence of the useful:

Putting those pieces together, that's the ultimate productivity improvement. And that is not utopian. That's real, and you can see it here at LiveWorx. So that is super exciting.


Image credit - Photo of Paul Roehrig at PTC LiveWorx 2019 by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - PTC provided my hotel accommodations and a press pass to attend LiveWorx 2019.

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