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‘We have built our own nightmare’: Why many aren’t ready for the next industrial revolution

Gather a group of panellists together give them a topical issue — in this case technology, jobs and the future of work — and let the discussion, and the contrasting opinions, flow.

That was the scene Thursday when the Presidents of Enterprising Organizations (PEO) held its annual member conference just north of Toronto. PEO describes itself as “a Canadian leadership advisory firm for business leaders to discuss important issues, solve problems and explore new opportunities.”

If there was a consensus from the four panelists it was this: The fourth industrial revolution will proceed at a pace that is much quicker than the previous three, namely, the use of water and steam power to mechanize production, the use of electric power to create mass production and the use of electronics and information technology to automate production. “Every industry is going to be impacted more quickly than any of us can imagine,” said Amber Mac, a veteran technology entrepreneur.

As a consequence, there will be more casualties, especially for those which don’t have the required skills to cope — all of which could present considerable social problems given that it’s possible much of the population won’t have jobs and the unwillingness to retrain those who are affected.

Accordingly adaptation — as ultimately occurred in the three previous revolutions following periods of huge dislocation and unemployment — is required. “Society has always lagged behind,” Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said, adding that governments are not in a good position to respond because they have been stripped down.

“We have built our own nightmare,” she said.

In the view of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli-born entrepreneur, motivational speaker and adventurer — his harrowing three weeks lost in the Amazon rainforest was the basis of the movie Jungle starring Daniel Radcliffe — we are near singularity, or the situation where the rise of artificial super intelligence “will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.”

Ghinsberg argues that “once we cross singularity,” it will become difficult to distinguish between technology and humanity, making the future path even more difficult to predict.

Stein has a different take. In her view, the critical question is “how do we organize ourselves. Trust is critical. Artificial intelligence is no substitute for trust relationships.”

David Cunningham, co-founder of Code Project Solutions, was emphatic: “it’s all very disruptive, and it’s all coming a lot faster than people think,” he said noting that the stage is set for “live entertainers with no entertainers and movies with no actors in them.” In his view, for those engaged in interface work — which could, for example, be 15 per cent to 20 per cent of bank employees — the situation is grim. But the outlook is positive “for a long time” for those engaged in “hands-on work.”

In such a situation, one of the challenges is to somehow ensure how the benefits of the new technology — generated by companies which tend to employ few people and which tend to form “natural monopolies” — are more widely dispersed. “We need to think differently,” he said all of which led to a discussion of a guaranteed annual income, an idea that was first advanced by Milton Friedman more than 50 years back but which is now being adopted, on a pilot basis, in three Ontario cities. “It’s a basic human right, the right to live with dignity,” said Ghinsberg. However, U of T’s Stein said people in the three cities have been slow to sign up, in large part because people get “dignity from work.”

Mac was also emphatic: “We are screwed,” she said, noting that “an elite group (engaged in artificial intelligence) understands what’s happening and is in control.”

Financial Post
bcritchley@nationalpost.com

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