Participating guests were Hugo Westerlund, Professor and Director at the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, Gunnar Karlsson, Professor of Tele Traffic Systems and Director of the Laboratory for Communication Networks at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Lihui Wang, Professor and Chair of Sustainable Manufacturing at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Julia Kirby, Author and Editor at Harvard Business Review, who joined the discussion via Skype.

Jobs disappearing

We are in for big changes in our job markets. Where and how will we work in the future? How will employers, industries and politicians need to adapt to these changes? "Job tasks that are done by highly educated people will disappear. In an accounting office, instead of five people, four are needed because some tasks are automated. Two years later they need three, and then two”, Gunnar Karlsson explained.

Automation and artificial intelligence are posed to make a large portion of today’s workforce redundant. However, Professor Wang did not fully agree saying that he did not think that robots will replace humans completely. "To a certain extent, robots and automation have already replaced humans in many jobs, but mostly in dirty, dangerous and repetitive work that is stressful. Humans still need to be around. Robots can only do jobs that are very strict and don’t need flexibility to make decisions on spot. The challenge now is how to make robots and humans work together safely, to make robots help humans in an assisting way, for example lifting heavy components to the right position”, Lihui Wang added.

The need for social competence

Professor Hugo Westerlund
Professor Hugo Westerlund

Social competence will also still be needed, Professor Hugo Westerlund said: "Not everybody will be educated or have the talents to work in the increasingly demanding jobs that we have since the dirty and simple jobs are taken over by robots. I think that that matching issue is a problem. In the jobs with human touch, you need people with social competence”.

Contribution to the society and incentives are important, Professor Westerlund continued: "I think people need incentives to get up in the morning and to be creative to create new jobs. I don't think we should have a society where we expect a large number of people not to contribute to the financial life of society. I think we need some financial incentives to actually drive development."

Self-driving vehicles and automation

"In twenty years I think we can take for granted that we will have self-driving vehicles and that automation of services through software will be visible. Simple technologies like a sewing machine will also be prevalent. This will of course have implications for society. With self-driving cars we don't own a car, we will buy a transport service”, Gunnar Karlsson said, adding that taxi drivers will become redundant, and lorry drivers as well.

New job markets

New times can also create new job markets. "If you look at it historically, when you have a market economy, there are also new jobs created. For instance in creative jobs where you need a lot of judgement, and need a human touch", Hugo Westerlund explained.

"Machines are not only replacing unskilled or low skilled workers, but also knowledge workers, people that have invested an expensive college education and are doing work that requires years of brain training, for example under writers and radiologists." Julia Kirby said, adding that the work she does as an author is about innovation, and therefore she finds herself always one step ahead of the machines, which are automating what already exists.

Positive effects

Machines replacing humans have positive sides, for instance statistic software can do things that would have required the work of hundreds of people, giving more time to creative work, Professor Westerlund said. “We tend to think that the easy tasks are taken over by machines, but that's not really true. Machines are good at other things than humans are. Human brains are not blank slates; they are shaped by evolution meaning we are good at certain things and poorer at others. Machines are also good for heavy lifting, and dealing with poisonous environments. If we understand our human nature, we can find a better match between human and machine”.

Professor Westerlund concluded that when machines and robots take over our work in for instance medical care, there is more time for humans to be more human.

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About Crosstalks

Crosstalks is an international academic talk show, broadcast once a month by two of Sweden’s top universities – KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University. All episodes are available online here.