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Work in an Automated Future

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will disrupt employment, just as the previous three did. But before we assume the worst, we should recall that technological change has more often affected the nature of work, rather than the opportunity to participate in work itself.

LONDON – Disruptive technologies are now dictating our future, as new innovations increasingly blur the lines between physical, digital, and biological realms. Robots are already in our operating rooms and fast-food restaurants; we can now use 3D imaging and stem-cell extraction to grow human bones from a patient’s own cells; and 3D printing is creating a circular economy in which we can use and then reuse raw materials.

This tsunami of technological innovation will continue to change profoundly how we live and work, and how our societies operate. In what is now called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technologies that are coming of age – including robotics, nanotechnology, virtual reality, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and advanced biology – will converge. And as these technologies continue to be developed and widely adopted, they will bring about radical shifts in all disciplines, industries, and economies, and in the way that individuals, companies, and societies produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of goods and services.

These developments have provoked anxious questions about what role humans will play in a technology-driven world. A 2013 University of Oxford study estimates that close to half of all jobs in the United States could be lost to automation over the next two decades. On the other hand, economists such as Boston University’s James Bessen argue that automation often goes hand in hand with the creation of new jobs. So which is it – new jobs or massive structural unemployment?

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