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Back to the AI Future: the emergence of the Second Machine Age workforce 

21 October 2015 is ‘Back to the Future Day’. It was the day in Back to the Future (BTTF) 2 that Marty McFly travels to the future from 1985 and discovers his hometown transformed. While we still don’t have flying cars (and hover boards are still in development), the movie made some alarmingly accurate predictions about how technology would significantly augment and automate the world. 

Emergence of the augmented and automated workforce
Humans have always built machines to augment and automate their work. In particular, new technologies tend to enter workplaces to fill the productivity gaps caused by social and economic upheaval. For example, the power loom was introduced after years of Napoleonic wars, heralding in the Industrial Revolution. While we have no macroeconomic back story to BTTF’s mildly dystopian vision of 2015, it predicted, to some degree, what is currently referred to as the ‘Second Machine Age’. Following years of economic turmoil, organisations are looking to rebuild their businesses using augmenting and automating technologies, such as connected technologies, eg mobile, social IoT, wearables) and artificial intelligence, respectively.

Connected technologies featured in BTTF when the future Marty McFly speaks to his boss via video conferencing, and when the younger Marty discovers the benefits of a self-drying jacket. In the real world, managers already use social technologies to augment virtual team management, while D3O is developing smart materials for the military, using dilatant ‘orange goo’ to make armour more effective in preventing injury. 

We also see AI in BTTF, where we are introduced to robot customer service representatives and intelligent refuse bins. Indeed, AI and robotics are developing at a rapid pace and are being used to automate physical, intellectual and – to a small degree – social activities, from AI call centre representatives to robotic hotel customer service staff.

Creating the future
As with the Industrial Revolution, the coming of the Second Machine Age is predicted to cause massive job displacement, with automation predicted to eliminate 54% European jobs and 47% US jobs in the next few years. And if we are to take BTTF 2 at face value, the future envisioned at the beginning of the movie certainly lacks a human presence. 

Indeed, most visions of the future feature the unemployment of the vast majority of humanity. The idealist view is that we will want for nothing, whilst robots do all our work for us (a little like in Star Trek, where humanity is free to pursue self-actualising goals, such as space exploration). The more popular view, however, is a frightening, two-tier society, in which the minority elite enjoy a life of luxury, whilst everyone else lives in anonymous, meaningless squalor. 

Whatever happens, the machines are not going to take over our jobs all by themselves. Despite the visible technological parallels between the movie and the real world, the key message of BTTF is that the future is not set; present actions create the future. Marty McFly is horrified by what he experiences in 2015, but then goes back in time to create a more positive future for himself and his family. Likewise, how the Second Machine Age materialises will depend on the decisions made by governments and businesses, alike.

In my next blog, I will discuss the specific opportunities available to employers to use both augmenting and automating technologies to transform their organisations, and create a Second Machine Age workforce that will benefit their employees, their share price, and the societies in which they operate.

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