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Alain Giguère

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Do you believe that technological innovation is a threat to your job or career? 26% of working people think it is (and Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc)

Categories: On my radar this week

Posted on 11-03-17 at 5:06 p.m.

"Disruption," a highly charged buzzword that is untranslatable in French-carries a hint of scorched earth and sectorial apocalypse.

One example of disruption is how the "new media" has undermined the entire traditional media industry, especially newspapers, leaving the players in a desperate fight to maintain their advertising revenues.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has also inserted itself into this dynamic of economic and technological restructuring. The economy is "digitizing" and "automating" at a faster and faster rate, and this acceleration is not about to stop. The rate is exponential. According to the law coined by Intel's Greg Moore, microprocessor capacity doubles every two years. As such, we can also expect an exponential explosion in applications.

Given this prospect of accelerating technological change and its accompanying economic disruption, we asked Canadians how they are reacting to this development: whether they see it as a threat or an opportunity.

More than two out of five (45%) employed individuals see this as an opportunity for advancement and training, 26% consider it a threat to their career or professional future, and 29% have no idea how they will be affected by these innovations. Note that we have observed no significant regional or provincial variations in these results.

Professionals and younger people are the most optimistic

Interestingly, professionals are the most enthusiastic occupational category in terms of seeing upcoming technological changes as an opportunity for them, whereas labourers and technicians feel the most at risk. The under-45s are especially optimistic about technological progress, whereas older people are more worried about it.

It's not surprising that labourers and technicians feel particularly threatened by technological progress. Robotization and the automation of industrial processes have already made many jobs in these occupational categories obsolete over the years. But what's different today is that AR is putting even professional jobs in jeopardy. "Deep learning" can automate many of the tasks that professionals handle now, especially younger professionals. But these are precisely the two most optimistic economic and demographic categories. It appears that people are not truly aware of what AR has in store for the economy in coming years, especially for the job market and young professionals.

Lawyers, accountants, engineers, and even certain categories of doctors (radiologists, in particular), are the type of professionals whose work to a large degree can be automated by AR, thus potentially threatening a great many jobs. So far, none of this seems to have entered the consciousness of professionals.

Innovation-professional development or the threat of exclusion?

 When we analyze the personal values and hot buttons of the people active in the job market based on their impressions of how the next wave of technological change will impact their job or career, we find that innovation plays a very important symbolic role in their attitudes.

Optimists see innovation and technological progress as a lever, a springboard, to help them reach their full potential and explore the limits of their possibilities. These individuals feel they have a great deal of ability and control over their lives. They see innovation as the way to assert this control, to realize their professional and personal potential-as the ultimate tool to get them where they want to go. Similarly, they see AR in the same light.

The greatest pessimists, those who believe that innovation is a threat, see technical progress as a source of social exclusion. Every time a major innovation is introduced, they've seen entire sectors of the workforce lose their jobs, with little chance of finding another job. Like many other segments of the population that I have dealt with in my columns, these pessimists have a rather apocalyptic view of society's future. Ultimately, innovation represents the end of work, at least for them. They believe that robots and computers will one day be able to do the work of almost the entire workforce. They feel potentially excluded and are worried about their financial future.

Apocalypse or resilience?

Technological progress has always transformed industrial and professional processes. Even though large sectors of the workforce have been negatively impacted at certain times, the unemployment rate in affected countries is still very positive today. There have been many predictions of apocalypse over the years, yet, despite everything, the job market continues to perform quite well in terms of job creation, displaying remarkable resilience. Perhaps the same will obtain with AR and deep learning, with the labor market enjoying another boost of resilience through the creation of new types of jobs. Perhaps the professionals are right in thinking that these innovations will present opportunities for new training experiences and new career challenges. We shall see.

Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc

Over the centuries, history has recorded many economic, social and political disruptions, including the transformation of agrarian economies by the industrial revolution, which threw serfs and farmers off the land to supply the labour for fledgling industries at starvation wages. Political revolutions have also wreaked havoc and disruption on people's lives.

Which leads me to my lyrical clip this week: Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites), an opera by Francis Poulenc. During the French Revolution, religious orders were abolished, and anyone wanting to maintain their affiliation in an order was sentenced to death. In this excerpt, Carmelite nuns refuse to hide their devotion to their god, at the cost of their lives. We can hear the guillotine slice off their heads in this sad and beautiful piece.

Francis Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Jan Latham-Koenig (dir.), 2001.