Disruptive tech and the future of work – Expert Reaction

Technological advancements are more likely to create jobs than take them away over the next 10-15 years, according to a report from the Productivity Commission.

The draft report ‘New Zealand, technology and productivity’ says we aren’t likely to see widespread technological disruption to the way we work in the near the future, with the rates of job destruction actually declining in New Zealand since 2000.

The report provides advice for how New Zealand can capitalise on new jobs created by technology and how to adjust to changes in work and employment.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the report.

Professor Michael Witbrock, School of Computer Science, University of Auckland comments:

“The report is right to focus on the opportunities for well-being from automation, and to caution that both the benefits and costs of technological disruption tend to appear more slowly than the technologies’ developers imagine.

“But we shouldn’t think of AI as just another technology, or even just another general purpose technology like electricity, or telephones, or the internet; it’s more than that; it’s an attempt to build a universal technology – one that can do every practical task that humans can do.

“It’s extremely hard to predict when the fundamental advances in AI will happen, or how quickly they will happen, but the goal of AI research is to give us tools that automate thought, in a very general way. People may reasonably say that this attempt is failing, or will fail, but we should consider what we can do if it succeeds. Because, if and when it does, it promises to change the role of human mental labour in much the same way that machinery changed the role of human physical labour. And if machines can do the mental tasks of humans, and the physical ones, and, importantly, the tasks that require both mental and physical skills, then one has to ask, where exactly are these new jobs that some view as inevitable going to come from?; what hidden new human capability are they going to allow us now make use of?

“Machines being capable of doing most of the jobs we use people for now seems likely, even if it doesn’t happen soon. So we should start working out how to value humans for their worth, not for their usefulness. And the sooner NZ starts to work out how that should be done, and how we can make use of enormous potential productivity gains, and the enormous potential gains in human wellbeing, the better off we’re likely to be.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Paula O’Kane, Work Futures Otago Group, Department of Management, University of Otago, comments:

“Similar to the Productivity Commission report, in our research (High Value Manufacturing and Information and Communication Technology in New Zealand to 2040), participants felt the New Zealand landscape would adapt to the different skills needed in an era of technology, but they did stress the need for greater partnerships between education, industry and government to ensure the right skills were available.

“Our participants echoed the worry mentioned in the report about the gap between the rich and the poor increasing and I believe that this is a key area New Zealand needs to address, whether this be through living wages or some form of universal basic income.

“I believe the very real reality of the ageing population is ignored in the Productivity Commission report and ageing will have serious knock-on effects on skill sets and wealth gaps.
“The report suggests the ability for technology to enable employee monitoring is positive, but the reality of ‘man and machine’ means this is open for abuse by organisations and could result in negative individual level effects like over-managing and using these as productivity measures.

“Employment law adaptions need to be explored in the report and by the government. Adaptations to the law need to be forward-thinking and allow for flexibility in work scenarios while still protecting employees.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Sara Walton, Work Futures Otago Group, Department of Management, University of Otago, comments:

“I agree broadly with the findings from the Commission. I do think that change is not imminent but will happen.

“However, while we may be a small Island in the Pacific I think that we need to be careful not to succumb to the whims of the global economy and be careful to develop our own destiny.

“We have a particular context i.e. Mātuaranga Māori, and we will be affected by climate change and other environmental issues. Therefore, we need to set an agenda for the future that builds productivity for Aotearoa New Zealand on our terms for our people.”

No conflict of interest.