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Rise of the robot workforce: Machine learning to shake up traditional employment

Automation and machine learning are set to disrupt our workforce in massive ways in coming years, according to delegates at this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa. The so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is set to displace many career fields, introducing what could be the best of times and worst of times for workers, according to Dr. Roze Phillips, Managing Director for Accenture Consulting. However, this situation also presents new opportunities in the world of work, especially when it comes to more analytical jobs, as Phillips explains in this podcast with BizNews. – Gareth van Zyl

This podcast is brought to you by RMB. I’m at the World Economic Forum for Africa, where I’m speaking to Dr Roze Phillips, who is the Managing Director for Accenture Consulting. Roze, how will the Fourth Industrial Revolution change the workforce?

That’s a very interesting question, Gareth. I actually think that we live in both the best of times, but probably equally also in the worst of times. I say that because technology and digital, which is really what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is about, allows us to be much more connected as a society and that has to be good because are now able, while in Kenya, for example, as a farmer, to access information that allows you to know what your crop needs to look like, what the weather pattern is going to be.

So you can actually optimise your own production and even with a small farming capability really be productive and you can raise your family that way, right. Therefore, it has the ability to connect, but it also has the unfortunate potential to disconnect because there are still people that do not have access to all of these technologies and of course everybody asks the question “Is a machine going to take away my job?” So, it’s the best of times in terms of connectivity and what we can do to enhance human potential through more information, but the worst of times in that there are going to be issues around job losses where machines are better able to do things than humans can.

How can a country like South Africa get ready for this revolution, how do we ready our workforce?

I think that’s the important thing, is about how to ready the workforce. I think that we used to believe that you move from cradle to career, you have one career; you do the same thing for the next 30, 40 years. That is no longer going to be the case. I cannot tell you which jobs are going to be taken by machines, nobody can. We used to think it’s just a low level administrative task, now machines are beating humans at jeopardy, and they’re beating humans at poker.

Machines are now learning faster than humans can learn, so you can see that pretty much everything can be taken over by a machine, so the only thing that a human being can do is to learn and be adaptable. We as human beings, and whether we are in South Africa or China or anywhere else, we need to constantly re-skill ourselves, constantly learn to learn and really practice adaptability because change is not going to go away, so we need to learn to be change smart and build our change muscle.

What are the consequences if we don’t get the workforce trained up correctly?

We’re going to be left behind. There are three workforces that we are seeing now. The first is your full time employee, but that is becoming a smaller and smaller workforce. The second workforce is your freelancers, that’s probably about 50% of you workforce if you look at 2023. If you’re starting to look at both emerging markets and developed markets, yes, about 50% to 70% of the workforce is working as freelancers, they do part time work.

Accenture’s Roze Phillips at this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa.

The third workforce is the robot. That is the reality. The robot is going to be able to do knowledge work that human beings are currently doing, so if you think about those three workforces that we have, you’ll see that formal employment, where you own a job and you are on the payroll is going to be something that is less and less important and your workforce, if you are a corporate, if you are CEO, your workforce will be robots and freelancers, your best people will not be your employees.

It sounds like the “Rise of the Robots”, so which occupations are most at threat and which ones aren’t?

If you asked me that question three months ago, maybe even three weeks ago, I would have said to you, the way that we’ve evolved as a species, the machines or the technologies used to take things away that aren’t that dangerous or difficult to do, now machines are starting to take away the administrative tasks and you’ll see more and more as machines begin to learn, which is what they do. We don’t teach machines anymore, we are now using cognitive computing; machines have the ability to learn.

With all the data that we have available, they learn and faster, so pretty much machines are starting to take the knowledge work away from human beings. The only thing that really for me is still the ambit of a human being is innovation, creativity, experimentation, curiosity, those kinds of soft skills, I think these are the things that human beings will still continue to retain and that machines will find very difficult to do, but it’s almost every industry.

It’s going to pose many questions around what it means to be human and what meaning is.

Absolutely, and I think that’s a fantastic thing because I think that human beings need to be released from the administrative tasks that we used to do or from the dangerous things that we used to do. We should be able to do things that talk about what is meaning, and we should be creating the new. This is the fantastic thing about technology in my mind, is that we now have not just the ability to do things a little bit differently or a little bit new, we can do different things, we can do new things, we can solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, but we couldn’t do that because we never had time before.Previously we were doing all the road to work, we can now do all of those other things, it’s not just going to happen automatically though, it’s a choice that we are going to have to make as human beings, that says human beings are the ones that are going to be creative. We need to enhance creativity, we need to make sure that in our work environments, we encourage people to experiment or encourage people to come up with new ideas. That way, I think we broaden the pie, to be honest, we allow for more job creation because I’m not a believer that the machines will take away all work. The machines will take away the work that humans shouldn’t be doing anymore to release us to live to an even higher level of human capital optimisation.

What is Accenture doing to get ready for this revolution?

We are changing the way that we work also. Our organisation has become more and more flat, our organisation has said, “We can’t protect ourselves against phone digital, we need to embrace digital”. So, we call ourselves a digital organisation and we also call ourselves a learning organisation. I think that’s probably even more important than calling ourselves a digital organisation. We’re an organisation that embraces learning. We embrace learning in the way that we engage with our clients and when we talk about learning, it’s not just learning from ourselves, it’s learning in an ecosystem environment.

So we work with start-ups, we work with universities, we work with governments because we believe that we don’t own the answer anymore, we believe that those answers, like you have freelancers and employees and robots, we believe that the answer comes through an ecosystem approach. So, be digital, embrace digital, embrace connectivity, use the data that is now available, and absolutely embrace learning because that’s how you’re going to be change strong.

Roze what have you made of WEF Africa?

I believe a World Economic Forum, to be honest, is diversity in motion, that’s what I call it. Sometimes the motion is not necessarily forward, sometimes the motion is backwards, but it’s diversity in motion and I call it that because it has all the world’s best thinkers and the innovators, the academics, the policy makers, the influences of the world are all coming together at the World Economic Forum and we are combined by one thing and that is that we care about the future of society and the future of human beings. I’ve already learnt quite a bit from listening to others and that’s really what I came to do, I came to listen because I think that’s also one of the fundamental human skills that we have, listen and learn. I would like to see though, that we stop talking and that we actually do action more.

I think that there is a recognition that labour has been left behind, people have been left behind. Digital has been about machines, but we’ve not seen economic growth necessarily over the past few years coming from people, coming from labour. That has to change. We talk about the next billion consumers are in Africa, but the worst consumer is an unemployed consumer, right, and so I’d like to see us do more there and I’m encouraged by what I hear leaders talk about both in business, in government, civil society, and academia about being able to just unleash the potential. It’s like Minister Ramaphosa said, “We’re going to move from potential and possibility to prosperity” and that’s what I’d like to see happen for our continent.

Roze, thank you very much for chatting to me today. This podcast was brought to you by RMB.

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