During this past week, I had the privilege of being one of the 100 people invited to the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland to discuss the Future of Work. The event is an intimate gathering of roughly 600 people: leaders of tomorrow and leaders of today including billionaire entrepreneurs, world leaders, and cutting edge researchers, and brilliant thinkers.
To qualify for this all expenses trip, more than 1,300 people wrote an essay. I was one of the 100 whose essay and ideas were picked. I wanted to share this essay that discusses what the future of work will be.
I was trying to answer how I plan on being economically relevant in the future as computers increasingly take over the work of so many humans. Here’s my essay below.
A Transcendent Teacher
If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.
The future will be filled with creative teachers, and it is to this calling that I hope to dedicate my life. But what is a creative teacher? Is there any difference between that and the traditional teacher found in any school or university?
To be a creative teacher means to listen, connect, and share. This form of teaching is not only limited to traditional academic institutions, but at every organization or economic system where we must congregate, cooperate, and co-create. Our future depends on our ability to master these skills and to see of ourselves as learners and teachers.
I believe that to be economically relevant, we will all need to become teachers to share our expertise, but more importantly, our humanity. This represents a radical identity shift, but it is the only realistic option left for the future. Thankfully, it is also the most richly rewarding not only intellectually, but also socially and economically.
Automation through robotics and artificial intelligence marks the end of work as we know it. In the near future, up to 50% of most work can be automated away.1
In this new reality, we face the collective challenge of remaking society. The most neglected problem is about people. Sure, there are many who have made fair and accurate predictions about the future, but it has been about the future of industry, the future of commerce, the future of governments. But few have attempted to look at the future of culture.
The most difficult question will be how to help people change. Simplistic solutions like retraining, more colleges, etc are not helpful. There is a more fundamental question emerging from all this: how do we convince countless people to believe in their ability to change? How do we convince a factory worker who is in his or her 50s to suddenly retrain in order to adapt to the changing times as his job becomes obsolete? How does this person feel any sense of control and pride in his new work, where he is likely to feel incompetent after a lifetime of mastery at his old work? How do we deal with a desensitized culture which rewards outrageous success and sensationalizes the downtrodden? How do we create resilient people through cultural change? Can the future of culture even do this?
The question of AI disrupting the future presents us the opportunity to ask the most fundamental questions about what it means to be a better human who can change, lift others up in the process, and feel good about it. And so, to answer a question about the future, we must look within. More than predicting the future, attempting to analyze and prescribe a solution for the human heart and mind seems like a Quixotic quest. However, I am convinced that this vision is within our grasp if we all embrace the role of teachers.
If artificial intelligence makes our current work dispensable, we will need to work on things that are indispensable: to share our humanity. To create art, connection, meaning. There are no algorithms for humanity. The essence of a teacher is to show and inspire this in students.
Technology has historically been what has pushed GDP, but the end game of accelerated technology developments is to make itself invisible and let our humanity flourish. We are quickly arriving at that place. We have arrived at a place where cultural anthropology, psychology, commerce, government, and technology have to meld.
This means that traditional institutions of learning will not be conducive to this new group of teachers. We will go to a many-to-many model of learning and teaching as we train each other on new skillsets, new viewpoints, and new opportunities. This will be in sharp contrast to the one-to-many model found in today’s learning institutes. These organizations will have lower barriers to entry for citizens, will advance the cause of humanistic education designed to teach empathy, opportunity-seeking, with a bias towards action.
These new organizations or learning laboratories will be fluid to the demands of each community. These labs will serve as incubators of a new collective identity seeped in shared experiences, needs, skills, work, and commerce. As a result, entire new companies and institutions will emerge. Facilitating this will be the role of crowdsourced teachers.
Through building these shared identities, we can rearrange society where we make the conflict less about the haves vs. The have-nots or rich vs. The poor, and more about us vs poverty. Creating a shared identity is the link to build a different future.
Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes character, calibre, and the future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.
APJ Abdul Kalam
Abdul Kalam was arguably the most popular President of India. He had a vision to transform India from a developing country into a developed country. He went far and wide to develop a plan to make this happen. He centered his plan around ideas like education, infrastructure, energy, and other things. And yet, there was something missing. It wasn’t until he met Pramukh Swami that he uncovered the last element of his plan: Faith. Not in the sense of religion, but in the idea of a collective self, or a transcendent undercurrent to life. This, he felt, was the glue that would make everything else come together. Indeed, “Transcendence” was the last book he published before passing away, exploring this idea2.
This seems like a trite topic for a topic as serious and academic as artificial intelligence and the future of work. Yet, perhaps this is not a time to continue asking the same question about how to increase economic output and remain relevant, but a time to ask how can we become more human again, stop seeing ourselves as employees and consumers, and as humans. Our redemption lies here, if you will forgive the religious tone of that statement. As people worldwide are the precipice of becoming economically obsolete, we are faced with a certain set of choices: to transcend our old definition of who we are, or to become something bigger.
What Kalam saw as a means of transforming a country, Maslow saw Self-Transcendence as the apex in his hierarchy of needs. Self-transcendence is a requirement for the next stage of people’s lives, and also a means to fulfill the deepest need of our lives.3
Teachers enable this shift from me-centredness to us-centredness and helping people work towards humanity’s ultimate need of self-transcendence. And this is indeed necessary to have any level of relevance in the coming automated future. Meeting our human needs before automation happens will be critical towards a better future where we are all relevant.
This is what’s missing in every argument about the future, and it is this work which can transform society within our lifetimes. This work is my mission.
Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.
I believe the future of work will demand all of us to step into these larger shoes as teachers to one another. This is the future of becoming economically relevant, the means to include everyone in growth, and to create a better future where every human can find their own unique callings, feel the immense sense of satisfaction from helping others, and find means of transcending ourselves through constant growth, contribution, and meaning. Other visions of future mean not only economic irrelevance, but a class of haves vs. have-nots. These seeds have already been planted in many parts of the world, and we are seeing the chaos, class warfare, and caustic environments that are a few minutes away from sparking a tinderbox.
A study of history shows us that we have become increasingly fragmented, becoming disconnected islands from each other, living in our own filter bubbles. AI presents the first opportunity for us to embrace coming together or face irrelevancy.
This won’t happen through fighting the automation. This resistance is normal, but it is important to realize that people are ultimately not pushing back automation, but pushing away their own internal drives to change. Long and hard lives have created a class of people unsure in their ability to reinvent themselves, grow again, hope again.
More than anything, we need to reignite hope in being able to change ourselves. We need to reignite hope in our ability to improve, to become better than we have, to withstand the changes that confront us. Instead, we have fed our own fears and given permission for our unfounded insecurities to flourish. These make us believe that we must fight, resist, push back or face obsolescence. We have mistaken the idea that somehow if we our current jobs are automated away, our future selves will become obsolete. Nothing can be further from the truth.
This is my vision for myself and others as I face my future.
1 Manyika, J. (2017). What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages. McKinsey Global Institute website: https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/future-of-organizations-and-work/what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages
2 Kalam, A. A., & Tiwari, A. (2015). Transcendence: my spiritual experiences with Pramukh Swamiji. Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India: Harper Element.
3 Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslows hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302-317. doi:10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.522