David Lee
1,668,603 views • 10:06

So there's a lot of valid concern these days that our technology is getting so smart that we've put ourselves on the path to a jobless future. And I think the example of a self-driving car is actually the easiest one to see. So these are going to be fantastic for all kinds of different reasons. But did you know that "driver" is actually the most common job in 29 of the 50 US states? What's going to happen to these jobs when we're no longer driving our cars or cooking our food or even diagnosing our own diseases?

Well, a recent study from Forrester Research goes so far to predict that 25 million jobs might disappear over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, that's three times as many jobs lost in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And it's not just blue-collar jobs that are at risk. On Wall Street and across Silicon Valley, we are seeing tremendous gains in the quality of analysis and decision-making because of machine learning. So even the smartest, highest-paid people will be affected by this change.

What's clear is that no matter what your job is, at least some, if not all of your work, is going to be done by a robot or software in the next few years. And that's exactly why people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are talking about the need for government-funded minimum income levels. But if our politicians can't agree on things like health care or even school lunches, I just don't see a path where they'll find consensus on something as big and as expensive as universal basic life income. Instead, I think the response needs to be led by us in industry. We have to recognize the change that's ahead of us and start to design the new kinds of jobs that will still be relevant in the age of robotics.

The good news is that we have faced down and recovered two mass extinctions of jobs before. From 1870 to 1970, the percent of American workers based on farms fell by 90 percent, and then again from 1950 to 2010, the percent of Americans working in factories fell by 75 percent. The challenge we face this time, however, is one of time. We had a hundred years to move from farms to factories, and then 60 years to fully build out a service economy. The rate of change today suggests that we may only have 10 or 15 years to adjust, and if we don't react fast enough, that means by the time today's elementary-school students are college-aged, we could be living in a world that's robotic, largely unemployed and stuck in kind of un-great depression.

But I don't think it has to be this way. You see, I work in innovation, and part of my job is to shape how large companies apply new technologies. Certainly some of these technologies are even specifically designed to replace human workers. But I believe that if we start taking steps right now to change the nature of work, we can not only create environments where people love coming to work but also generate the innovation that we need to replace the millions of jobs that will be lost to technology. I believe that the key to preventing our jobless future is to rediscover what makes us human, and to create a new generation of human-centered jobs that allow us to unlock the hidden talents and passions that we carry with us every day.

But first, I think it's important to recognize that we brought this problem on ourselves. And it's not just because, you know, we are the one building the robots. But even though most jobs left the factory decades ago, we still hold on to this factory mindset of standardization and de-skilling. We still define jobs around procedural tasks and then pay people for the number of hours that they perform these tasks. We've created narrow job definitions like cashier, loan processor or taxi driver and then asked people to form entire careers around these singular tasks.

These choices have left us with actually two dangerous side effects. The first is that these narrowly defined jobs will be the first to be displaced by robots, because single-task robots are just the easiest kinds to build. But second, we have accidentally made it so that millions of workers around the world have unbelievably boring working lives.

(Laughter)

Let's take the example of a call center agent. Over the last few decades, we brag about lower operating costs because we've taken most of the need for brainpower out of the person and put it into the system. For most of their day, they click on screens, they read scripts. They act more like machines than humans. And unfortunately, over the next few years, as our technology gets more advanced, they, along with people like clerks and bookkeepers, will see the vast majority of their work disappear.

To counteract this, we have to start creating new jobs that are less centered on the tasks that a person does and more focused on the skills that a person brings to work. For example, robots are great at repetitive and constrained work, but human beings have an amazing ability to bring together capability with creativity when faced with problems that we've never seen before. It's when every day brings a little bit of a surprise that we have designed work for humans and not for robots. Our entrepreneurs and engineers already live in this world, but so do our nurses and our plumbers and our therapists. You know, it's the nature of too many companies and organizations to just ask people to come to work and do your job. But if you work is better done by a robot, or your decisions better made by an AI, what are you supposed to be doing?

Well, I think for the manager, we need to realistically think about the tasks that will be disappearing over the next few years and start planning for more meaningful, more valuable work that should replace it. We need to create environments where both human beings and robots thrive. I say, let's give more work to the robots, and let's start with the work that we absolutely hate doing. Here, robot, process this painfully idiotic report.

(Laughter)

And move this box. Thank you.

(Laughter)

And for the human beings, we should follow the advice from Harry Davis at the University of Chicago. He says we have to make it so that people don't leave too much of themselves in the trunk of their car. I mean, human beings are amazing on weekends. Think about the people that you know and what they do on Saturdays. They're artists, carpenters, chefs and athletes. But on Monday, they're back to being Junior HR Specialist and Systems Analyst 3.

(Laughter)

You know, these narrow job titles not only sound boring, but they're actually a subtle encouragement for people to make narrow and boring job contributions. But I've seen firsthand that when you invite people to be more, they can amaze us with how much more they can be.

A few years ago, I was working at a large bank that was trying to bring more innovation into its company culture. So my team and I designed a prototyping contest that invited anyone to build anything that they wanted. We were actually trying to figure out whether or not the primary limiter to innovation was a lack of ideas or a lack of talent, and it turns out it was neither one. It was an empowerment problem. And the results of the program were amazing. We started by inviting people to reenvision what it is they could bring to a team. This contest was not only a chance to build anything that you wanted but also be anything that you wanted. And when people were no longer limited by their day-to-day job titles, they felt free to bring all kinds of different skills and talents to the problems that they were trying to solve. We saw technology people being designers, marketing people being architects, and even finance people showing off their ability to write jokes.

(Laughter)

We ran this program twice, and each time more than 400 people brought their unexpected talents to work and solved problems that they had been wanting to solve for years. Collectively, they created millions of dollars of value, building things like a better touch-tone system for call centers, easier desktop tools for branches and even a thank you card system that has become a cornerstone of the employee working experience. Over the course of the eight weeks, people flexed muscles that they never dreamed of using at work. People learned new skills, they met new people, and at the end, somebody pulled me aside and said, "I have to tell you, the last few weeks has been one of the most intense, hardest working experiences of my entire life, but not one second of it felt like work."

And that's the key. For those few weeks, people got to be creators and innovators. They had been dreaming of solutions to problems that had been bugging them for years, and this was a chance to turn those dreams into a reality. And that dreaming is an important part of what separates us from machines. For now, our machines do not get frustrated, they do not get annoyed, and they certainly don't imagine.

But we, as human beings — we feel pain, we get frustrated. And it's when we're most annoyed and most curious that we're motivated to dig into a problem and create change. Our imaginations are the birthplace of new products, new services, and even new industries.

I believe that the jobs of the future will come from the minds of people who today we call analysts and specialists, but only if we give them the freedom and protection that they need to grow into becoming explorers and inventors. If we really want to robot-proof our jobs, we, as leaders, need to get out of the mindset of telling people what to do and instead start asking them what problems they're inspired to solve and what talents they want to bring to work. Because when you can bring your Saturday self to work on Wednesdays, you'll look forward to Mondays more, and those feelings that we have about Mondays are part of what makes us human.

And as we redesign work for an era of intelligent machines, I invite you all to work alongside me to bring more humanity to our working lives.

Thank you.

(Applause)