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Could “Uberification” be an opportunity rather than a threat?

Human skills like creativity and entrepreneurship will sustain Canada’s economy in the long run

By Ted Hewitt

“Siri,” I asked my phone one evening not long ago, “what’s playing at the ByTowne Cinema?”

The reply came back, “Here are directions to your nearest Boston Pizza.”

Artificial intelligence systems, like my smartphone’s virtual assistant, may still have some way to go in improving how I plan my leisure time, but it won’t be long before it and similar systems will be able not only to tell me—accurately—what’s on at my local cinema, but to recommend which foreign films I might enjoy, and a whole lot more.

Driverless cars and home deliveries by drones are no longer the stuff of science fiction. A recent report by Forrester, a United States-based market research and business-advising company, made headlines by predicting that, by 2021—only five years from now—six per cent of jobs in the US will be taken over by robots using AI-powered systems. They called this a “disruptive tidal wave.” In the US, that could mean up to seven million more unemployed people, with the biggest impact of being felt in fields like transportation, logistics, and customer and consumer services.

Here in Canada, the threat from disruptive technologies is similarly great. A report by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto says that more than 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is at risk of being replaced by technology and computers in the next 20 years. Usually, the jobs most at risk are at the lower-paying end of the market, and are often held by young people. These jobs include retail salespeople, administrative assistants and cashiers.

“Uberification,” in other words, isn’t just about a sharing economy. Every new start-up could also potentially disrupt lives and livelihoods. Our future prosperity is under threat.

Or is it?

“Our findings show that a significant percentage of Canadian jobs are at a high risk of being replaced by automation over the next 10 to 20 years,” says Sean Mullin, executive director of BII+E. “However, we don’t believe that all of these jobs will be lost. Many will be restructured and new jobs will be created as the nature of occupations changes due to the impact of technology and computerization.”

Restructuring and adaptation offer our best hope of moving successfully from the industrial age to the digital one.

Often, the arguments urging us to prepare for the “new economy” of tomorrow revolve around the need for greater investments in technology itself. But that doesn’t reflect the whole picture. It’s human skills and knowledge that will help us successfully adopt—and adapt to—disruptive technology.

Yes, technology is crucial for Canada’s economic success, but the true innovation we seek is a more holistic, human endeavour. It’s how we identify the problem and the need for technology, as well as how we apply and adapt to the solutions, that counts.

Our future economic sustainability won’t be guaranteed by us just using more technology; it will only be ensured by the level of creativity, adaptability, foresight and human understanding associated with the development and use of that technology. It’s the cognitive and group skills, like communications, reasoning, sharing of experiences, problem-solving and leadership, that are increasingly being recognized as keys to business growth and quality of life.

Get that right and you have real innovation.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, once described himself as living at the “intersection of the humanities and technology.” He knew that enterprises depend on understanding how both disciplines can contribute to their success.

Research in the social sciences and humanities can help us understand more thoroughly and quickly the economic, social, environmental, legal and ethical aspects of disruptive technology. With its help, we can gain and maintain a competitive edge.

In November, some 150 researchers and leaders from across business, community and public sectors will gather at a forum in Ottawa organized by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Participants will explore findings made possible through SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future initiative.  The initiative identified emerging technologies as one of the six future challenges for Canada where social sciences and humanities research could contribute most greatly to the national dialogue.

The upcoming forum will focus on how emerging technologies can be leveraged to benefit Canadians—not just economically, but also, for example, to preserve Indigenous languages, empower older adults, and increase access to justice. The outcomes of social science and humanities research in this area will help Canadians better prepare for the disruptive road that lies ahead.

One interesting fact from the Forrester report is that jobs that require highly specialized human skills are the least likely to be replaced by automation—at least, for the foreseeable future. That tells me creativity, interpersonal communication and human understanding are a long way from being replaced by AI. More than that, they are the very key to a new truly knowledge-based economy. Now, what would Siri say to that?

Ted Hewitt is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This article was originally published in the Hill Times policy briefing on innovation on October 3, 2016.