“If we develop good ideas today to ensure that the possibilities and opportunities provided by technological progress are available to everyone, then it can be the best thing that has ever happened to us.”
A conversation with Lars Gaede about technological progress and how it can serve the public interest.
Lars, you’ve worked as a journalist for DIE ZEIT, Neon and WIRED, among others. In 2015 you founded Work Awesome, an agency headquartered in Berlin and New York that, among other things, curates and organises conferences on the subject of the “working environments of tomorrow”. The next will take place on 21 November in Berlin. (www.workawesome.de).
I’d like to talk with you about new technological possibilities – specifically digital business models and how they will influence our working environments. Changes are fast-moving in the digital world. There are rapid shifts in both technologies and in consumer demands. To be competitive, companies need to adapt to this new level of speed and act more quickly and flexibly. It no longer makes sense to meticulously map out projects, take forever to plan processes, let x-number of committees spend forever chewing over details and then implement everything downstream in line with existing hierarchies. What we need instead is rapid development of new prototypes by cross-functional teams with end-to-end responsibility, with the prototypes’ further iterative development and improvement driven by customer feedback, which has long been the practice in software development. Even very large companies are already redesigning their processes in line with agile methods. And that’s a good thing. The really exciting question then is: How is this scalable? That is, how do you get from agile projects to agile organizations? It is not enough to consider only individuals’ mindsets or methods. You have to start with the organization and its operating system.
Virtual and augmented reality: How and where do you think they’ll be deployed in the near future?
I can see virtual reality being used in the near future in marketing and sales as a customer presentation tool, for example, which will allow them to see an item of furniture in a furniture store as it would look in a simulation of their home. But I think what is really going to catch on is the use of augmented reality as a mixed form incorporating actual reality and virtual elements. People working in manufacturing are already wearing glasses that direct them to the appropriate part for making such-and-such a product when they’re standing in front of a large shelf full of different parts. This is much more efficient and simpler than having to page through a construction manual.
Robots have been incorporated into manufacturing for some time now. Do you see a place for robots in the office?
I think robots make sense wherever mechanical things are being created. And the advances here have been enormous. Before you had to program robots in a very exact way to get them to do what they needed to do when they are at point A or point B. In future, machines will be freer and more sophisticated in the ways they move, even in uncontrolled environments. They will be able to grasp delicate objects, which could lead, for example, to a more pronounced use of robots in the health care sector. Another area in which many people would like to see increased use is in the home. Including me! Unfortunately, tasks like cleaning are still incomprehensibly difficult for machines since objects in the home tend not to stay in one place and are difficult for the machines to differentiate. That means that the machine has to be able to distinguish between a piece of paper on a desk and piece of rubbish or something else. It will be a long, long time before a machine can tidy or clean as well as a human. I also do not see many applications in the office, since most tasks there depend on cognitive abilities. In future these may be supported or even replaced by artificial intelligence, but we probably won’t have robot colleagues sitting next to us.
Let’s talk about the development and use of artificial intelligence.
There are three big drivers behind the rapid development in this field. First, processing power has increased at a swift rate, not least because of the way we are now able to process an enormous amount of data in the cloud. Second, we currently have access to billions of data sets that intelligent systems can use to learn independently, meaning the ability to identify patterns and develop autonomous processes. These abilities to analyse and deduce are, for the most part, entirely obscure to us. And third, there has been a significant improvement in algorithms and in the actual programming of algorithms. Today machines can read, write, understand languages, draw conclusions from enormous amounts of data and devise courses of action based on these. This will subsequently lead to radical changes. In some respects, machines already outperform humans, such as in the visual recognition of anomalies in medical applications. But people are of course much better than any machine when it comes to empathy, general intelligence and creative work. Machines do not ever have a genuinely new idea. But there is a great potential for automation in any area in which the work involves highly structured processes.
What will it mean for society when jobs are made technologically obsolete?
We would be well advised to prepare ourselves now for changes to the labour market and devise solutions so this does not lead to large societal problems. One way might be to use education, for example, to put people in a position to do those things that machines cannot do very well. That means tasks that involve empathy, interpersonal relationships and creativity. In terms of the larger picture, we will have to look at whether and how we can redistribute societal wealth to minimize significant social inequality. The labour market and societal wealth should be organized in such a way that it is not only the few who profit from technological change, but as many people as possible. I think failing to do this would be very dangerous, and there will be political consequences. We are already seeing early indications of that, for example, in the US, where it was primarily people who have not profited from rapid technological changes who voted for Trump. In my opinion, Brexit too is a result of growing social inequality. This inequality arises in part because fewer and fewer people are profiting from this shift. Or they at least feel left behind.
We have to get a handle on social inequality then?
First and foremost, we have to do away with this concept of work whereby only paid work is considered real work. In fact, this concept has always been wrong. Consider all of the voluntary work, the job of raising children or caring for a family. That should also be recognised and maybe even rewarded by society. With the wealth generated by increased automation, we will be able to afford to pay more fairly for work that is poorly paid today, or done without any pay at all. One model that has been discussed is basic income.
Let’s think that through a little more: basic income. What role or what purpose would a company or an organisation have then?
Companies and organisations would lose none of their purpose were people to receive a basic income. Of course some things would change in the way wages are determined. Hard, unattractive jobs would be better paid than they are now because with a basic income, people wouldn’t be as dependent on them as it is the case today. A basic income could unleash a wave of entrepreneurship since people could simply give things a try without having to take on considerable economic risk. Should this go well, we could well end up with more companies than we have today.
Lars Gaede has worked as an editor at DIE ZEIT, Neon, WIRED and Deutsche Welle, among others. Through his company, he is currently engaged in designing, curating and moderating live format events organised around the subject of work – from innovation journeys through Lagos, Nigeria, to custom-tailored in-house workshops and keynotes on remote work and other topics. He organises www.workawesome.de, a conference series on the future of work in Berlin and New York, and www.organizeawesome.com – a co-learning community for leaders and managers.