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Faculty Panel Imagines the ‘Future of Work’ as Technologically Advanced and Competitive

The event featured panelists from engineering, journalism, and economics

One hundred years ago, the vast majority of the US population worked in agriculture. Farmers performed chores by hand, and humans and animals supplied nearly all of the power needed for farm operations. As time passed and technology progressed, new advances provided the means to produce more food for a growing country—but the number of farming jobs quickly declined.

“Now only 2 percent of the population works in agriculture,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering. Yet he points to an upside, “In 1915, you wouldn’t have imagined there would be jobs in pet care or game design,” he said.

So what will the workplace of the future look like?

As moderator of “The Future of Work: How Technology Will Change the Way We Work,” Ottino posed that question to a panel of Northwestern University professors. Cosponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, the event took place Wednesday, October 29 in the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center on the Chicago campus. Panelists were Kristian Hammond, Larry Birnbaum, Malcolm MacIver, and Joel Mokyr.

Kristian HammondImages of technology in the future workplace often include robots—bad robots. Hammond and Birnbaum said there has always been skepticism and fear associated with technology and intelligent systems. “We used to worry that robots would kill us,” said Hammond, professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern. “Now we worry that robots will take our jobs.”

Hammond and Birnbaum, also a professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern, are cofounders of Narrative Science, a company that turns data into stories and insights told with natural language. The company’s core technology, Quill, processes large data sets and transforms them into narratives. It has been used to interpret financial data for companies and to make standardized testing outcomes more understandable to students.

“The way people currently interact with machines is all about spreadsheets, charts, and graphs,” Hammond said. “We want to rid the world of that experience. We want narrative everywhere. With Quill, we’re looking at a world with more freedom.”

Larry BirnbaumAn audience member asked if programs like Quill would eventually replace the need for analysts and writers. Birnbaum and Hammond shook their heads. They said both groups are actually excited because it will relieve them of the tedious, grueling parts of work and free them to focus on the parts they enjoy.

“We’re dealing with cases that have tremendous amounts of data that no human can really master,” Birnbaum said.

Malcolm MacIver presented his advanced robotics research, which is centered on a robot modeled after the weakly electric black ghost knifefish. MacIver, an associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at McCormick, displayed photos from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “It took 86 days to cap the well,” he said. “That was a failure of robotics.” 

The remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) used in the mission relied excessively on visual information, which was problematic due to the murky conditions along the ocean floor. The ROV continuously kicked up silt and then had to wait for it to settle. A robot based the black ghost knifefish would work better, he said, because it uses electrosensing, instead of vision, to navigate the waters.

Malcolm MacIverMacIver shared video footage of his robotic fish navigating a maze of pylons in a tank filled with water. It was successful even when dirt was added to cloud the view. When the pylons were rearranged, the robot adapted to the changes in real time. Such a robot could also be used in dangerous search-and-rescue missions, which wouldn’t replace the jobs of divers but could keep them from precarious situations, he said. 

Although technology has contributed major benefits to the economy, MacIver worries that it drives income inequality by reducing the need for many skill-based, middle-class jobs. “The way technology impacts the future is not neutral,” he said. “It’s up to economists, academics, and policymakers to find solutions to some of technology’s less positive effects.”

An audience member asked if this work would help with the development of smarter prosthetics. “The problem with prosthetics, in general, is that users have difficulties because they don’t have sufficient sensing,” MacIver replied. “Our body isn’t a movement system but a sensing system. When an arm is lost, a lot of data is lost that can’t be replaced with a retina.”

MacIver ended by saying that technology will not negatively affect the future of our economy, but income inequality and offshoring will.

Joel MokyrJoel Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, discussed how we can take lessons from history to predict the future. He said that innovation will certainly continue; all of the “low-hanging fruit” have not yet been picked.

“There are far more fruits on this tree than the eye can see,” he said. “All we have to do is build taller ladders. That is precisely what scientists are doing for us.” 

Like Hammond and Birnbaum, Mokyr said people have always been wary of technology. He cited the Luddite movement in Nottinghamshire, England in the early 1800s. Artisans protested new machinery that they feared would replace them. Mokyr returned to Ottino’s example during the event’s opening. As agricultural jobs diminished over time, people still managed to find work.

“Jobs opened up,” he said. “People worked in clerical jobs, sales, and elsewhere. That is the big lesson to take from history. The economy did not collapse.”

Mokyr imagines the future workplace will include more independent contractors and telecommuters. Workers will not be tied to strict hours and specific offices, and the boundaries between work and leisure will “become increasingly fuzzy.” He predicts that more businesses—made possible by accessible and inexpensive technology—will spring up, forcing established companies to be more competitive with pricing.

“Modern technology creates networks of economic transactions,” he said. “Competition is the force that keeps capitalism honest, straight, and efficient.”