The future of work: How much human? How much machine?


Will machines be doing 52% of the work by 2025?

The idea is as old as the industrial revolution: The fear of machines replacing human labor. And the concept of how to prevent this from happening seem to be evergreen as well: Machine Tax. Nothing is more shocking than the image of a robotic nurse, combined with the prediction that this will be the future, not a real human being.

So, how realistic are the headlines that 47% of all US jobs might be threatened by AI?

Three observations from the 30,000 feet perspective: First, all fearmongering predictions from automated textile production to desktop computing eliminating jobs have been wrong. Second, investment and job growth continue to be aligned. Last but not least, starting in 2020 the whole Western world will enter a Japanese demographic era. The working population in the US and France will stagnate, while the rest of the developed world will see a shrinking workforce. The biggest decline will occur in China starting in 2030, based on their “One-Child-Policy”.

Japan is a good example of how hard it is to grow an economy while the working population shrinks. Important to note, this doesn’t impact a growing standard of living. The per-capita income of Japan is in line with developed countries. Based on this data, it might be desirable to experiment with a new, unknown scenario. Comrade Robot could replace humans, humans that don’t exist anymore. As long as the process is aligned with the shrinking of the working population.

No job killer. No salvation.

An important perspective from the ground level: Technology in the past has not replaced human labor at scale. Still, we have experienced over time the process of creative destruction. A beautiful term for massive, individual tragedies. Old jobs disappear, new evolve, those that can’t adjust will be thrown under the bus. They will lose jobs, income, and their living standard. In the end, automation and digital transformation will not transform our world into a universe without jobs or a landscape of unknown wealth. Japan, as one of the leaders in civilized automation, shows us the way. On an individual basis, we are talking a different game. Change will be massive, dramatic and tragic. Politics better be ready to ease the pain.

The new Digital Divide

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Remember the Digital Divide, often defined as an economic and social inequality to the access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies? With almost everybody now having access to mobile phones, it’s less about hardware and more about bandwidth and skill levels. A decade ago, this was a huge concern: One Laptop per child was of real importance to get any place in the world access to technology.

Due to cheaper technology and widespread use of digital tools, the original gap has largely disappeared. And replaced by a new Digital Divide. Life and work have become more hectic and time-consuming for everyone and many parents are forced and eased into using digital tools as babysitters or ways to keep their children engaged while they are busy with email, work or their social media activity. On the other side of the coin, we have our digital barons setting strict tech-free rules at home. They know better than anyone they designed the tools to capture attention, manipulate technology to keep on clicking.

The digital overlords understand that building connections, interacting with real humans, being outside, being bored, exploring things out of boredom, digging deeper into problems are skills that are necessary to prosper in this new age of technology and humanity convergence. This is the new digital divide that needs to be bridged.


Choose Love


Intriguing concept how to rebalance digital with humanity: ‘Choose Love’ pop-up stores in London and New York sold over the holidays Christmas presents for refugees.

The pop-up store off Carnaby Street has been set up by the charity Help Refugees and invites visitors to “shop your heart out, leave with nothing, and feel the love”. Shoppers can buy a range of items for refugees, including sleeping bags, emergency blankets and solar lamps.

“Christmas is a time of giving in abundance, but it makes you think about people who aren’t as lucky as we are,” said Josie Naughton, the chief executive of Help Refugees. “When you look at the stats of how much money is spent on Black Friday and compare that to the need in the world, it’s quite shocking.

As expected, customers reacted with empathy and love:

“We could never ever have predicted the success of the store. The way people have responded to it was amazing. People were coming into the physical shop, see a child’s boot and burst into tears,” Naughton said. The store showcases children’s shoes and coats to humanise a refugee crisis that’s largely spoken about in numbers, she said.

Refugeehelp was manifested in a store and you could buy items that could then be send to the refugees. Everything a refugee would want could be purchased. You are engendering this feeling of humanity.

A wonderful example how to bring the refugee crisis to life, move it from the overwhelming digital maelstrom to the reality of being a refugee, engendering humanity and empathy.

Letting go


`Visiting the Buddha Exhibition in Amsterdam inspired me to read up on some Zen stories and I stumbled upon this lesson:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

A simple reminder to reset, let go of the baggage we carry around with us. This can be literal, as I discussed last night with a friend about his desire to downsize, let go of the unnecessary and focus on what’s important. It can be the baggage we carry with us and that slows us down: the preconceptions, the hardened emotions, the way we view things. It can be also the way we look at problems or challenges: Technology can liberate us, it doesn’t have to enslave us, make us less happy or less focused. This baggage we carry slows us down, makes us less agile to deal with the problems at hand.

It might be time to drop most of it and travel super light.

The digital maelstrom: Challenge and Opportunity


One of the most important human need is connection. Regular connection to others allows us to thrive throughout our development, maintain a sense of well-being and belonging. Throughout millions of years, this need was fulfilled by our tribe. Our community. We learned to read other people, make friends, avoid strangers that seem threatening, We shared stories, secrets and turned stories into beliefs.

Fast forward a few million years and we are all living in the digital maelstrom.

Our community increased from the optimal size of 150 people to thousands, for some millions. Our hormonal responses based on very subtle cues of facial expression and body language are now trying to decipher video calls, short messages, and signal postings. It’s very stressful, it’s very challenging for all of us. No wonder, we transformed the way a community works for millions of years into a new way of communicating and living within a tribe in less than a generation. On top of that, we put a powerful device into our hands that can deliver a magic experience and drain our attention at the same time.

It’s exhausting for everybody. And so wonderful.

We make friends all over the world, reconnect with old ones. I traveled the world for a year and being able to work, thanks to technology. New ways to communicate and connect. New ways to experience the world and discover new ones. The digital space can be a magical place, a place of wonder and amazement.

It feels like a maelstrom because we are all learning how to deal with this new reality. While video calls seem theoretically like a good idea, we often turn off the camera because it feels unnatural to be on camera and not connect in person. We prioritize busy tasks over important tasks because checking Twitter seems more important and it was designed to get us back with quick hits of dopamine. We fall for made up stories, get outraged too quickly, share nonsense. We fall into the trap of likes and shares, forget about the real important stories way too quickly.

It’s to be expected. We were thrown into this maelstrom and we need time to figure it out, create new norms, new ways to transform the digital maelstrom into a more human experience. This year’s CES reminds us that the future is about virtual and audio assistant, 5G and AI. We can barely maintain our current lifestyle while new technologies are piling up and need to be addressed.

It’s tiring. And amazing.

New opportunities. New doors opening. New possibilities. Amazing things can be learned, seen, shared and new connections will be made.

But, it requires restraint from us. Future generations in the year 29,845 might be able to live in an always-on state. We certainly can’t. We need to learn when to turn it off, keep it off and use technology as a tool to achieve our goals. We might feel like cyborgs with that supercomputer in our hands. We are not. We are just humans with basic needs.

No need to apologize or feel bad about it. It is who we are. The digital maelstrom is here, will get stronger and more immersive and we need to deal with it. Right now, we are pretty terrible at it. But we will get better over time. It will take patience, discipline, and empathy for others. Because we all are part of the maelstrom.




The future of the self-checkout


It’s happening everywhere: at airports across the globe, at my local supermarket, at the local fast food joint. The self-checkout mania is growing and there seems no way to stop it. The reason is clear: The largest proportion of a retailer’s cost is their wage bill. That’s even more important in low margin business like grocery shops, big box retail, and fast food.

Replace the worker with the customer

 Yup, customers are not stupid. They understand they are replacing the cashiers and check-in agents. The customers do have to work more to get their task done and get nothing in return. Sometimes, the process is quicker in self-checkouts. More often than not, the good old cashier gets it done much quicker, but we get the bonus of pleasantries and eye contact. We are buying into the myth of self-checkout convenience while the stores basically turned the screen by 180 degrees and let us do the work.

This is just a stepping stone

It’s pretty clear where we go from here:

  • The low-margin stores will go to full automation (see Amazon Go) as soon as technology allows them to eliminate fraud through Machine Learning and various surveillance methods.
  • High-End Retail will increase their investment in highly skilled labor to deliver a completely non-digital, human experience.

The interesting space is between those polar opposites. It’s easy for high-end fashion brands with an even higher profit margin to invest in fashion advisors and consultants.

My guess, it will come down to generosity.

The big stores need to be generous with their shareholders, the high-end stores with their service and delivery for their customers to be generous. The majority of remaining stores are somewhere in between. The small stores will get it right first, they are close to the customers and their needs and the required empathy. The successful midsize stores will most likely focus on ambient payments, ensuring payments come to their customers as an organic part of the experience. An experience fueled by generosity towards the challenges of their customers.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to put my groceries on the belt and hope the cashier will be around tomorrow to greet me again.

What darkness tells us about the future

Boats Norway Light Island Islets Sea Night

The days are getting shorter, dark times are upon us for the next few months. Soon, we will change back to Winter Time and the media will inundate us with tips on how to deal with the depressive months of November to March. Depressive? Sure, in a world where everything is optimized, anything below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 10 hours of sun is a major problem. In hysterical times we are always looking for dangers. In the end, we will all die, if not by terrorists, the darkness will get us.

I was reminded of a story about the city of Tromsø, the largest dark winter city in Norway:

Tromsø, for those who don’t live in Norway, is above the Arctic Circle. At Tromsø’s latitude, 69 degrees, the sun sets at the end of November and doesn’t reappear until mid-January. That’s right, roughly 49 days where the sun never rises over the horizon.

Leibowitz, an American psychology student, became curious about how people in Tromsø managed to avoid the winter blues. She was so fascinated by the question she spent an academic year in the city after completing her undergraduate degree in psychology. As a US-Norway Fulbright fellow, she worked with Joar Vittersø, a psychologist at UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, whose research areas include quality of life and positive psychology.

“It seemed like the perfect place to test just how adventurous I really was, while also providing a unique population for a psychology research study,” Leibowitz wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic magazine about her experience. “How do the residents of northern Norway protect themselves from wintertime woes? And could these strategies be identified and applied elsewhere, to the same beneficial effects?”

Leibowitz came to understand quickly that her research was based on an assumption that people hate winter. Not so much in Norway:

Leibowitz and Vittersø found a correlation between how far north people lived in Norway and how positively they viewed winter and winter darkness.

More importantly, “Vittersø and I found that positive thought patterns in winter were related to life satisfaction, positive emotions and seeking challenges that can lead to personal growth,” Leibowitz said.

Vittersø emphasizes that the study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and that the correlations they found do not mean causation.

Nevertheless, he says that the study suggests what might make life easier for Norwegians during a time of year that most people don’t really like.

“We who live in Norway are probably not aware that we see so much to enjoy during the winter, because it is so normal for us,” Vittersø said. “But it is probably much less common to look at winter this way elsewhere in the world.”

It’s an intriguing study on the adaptability of human beings and our inner freedom. Norwegian citizens see the best sides of winter by transforming their mind into positive acceptance. Instead of whining (“It’s going to be dark for so many hours”), they adjust their reality to new possibilities. This Possibilismus, the philosophy of possibility, is in contrast of optimism and pessimism: It’s a creative force that shines a new light on the world. Light only shows its real beauty in darkness.

Paying attention to what we are paying attention

When we turn off the constant stream of the fear-mongering machine, we wake up in a reality where real relationships matter. Reality returns, changeable reality, a world we can make a difference in. That’s the opposite of post-factual. We return to liveliness. It doesn’t ignore the world, it gives us the freedom to interpret reality without intervention and intrusion.

The inventor of the term ‘mindfulness’, Ellen Langer said:

“The more we realize that most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by us at an earlier time in our lives, the more we open up to the realization that these too can change. And all we need do to begin the process is to be mindful.”

When we are blind to our inner workings, we allow the past to dominate the present and the future.

Immanuel Kant said: “Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.” Jesus said: “Do not be afraid”. He isn’t telling us to never fear; he’s telling us we don’t have to stay in the fear. Feel it, but leave it. Acknowledge it, but don’t live in it.

Fear makes us close our doors. Fear makes us turn our backs. Fear makes us focus on protecting ourselves, causes us to eye others with suspicion, leads us to think of our own needs. We react to problems when we let fear take hold.

Hope, on the other hand, encourages us to open up. Hope encourages us to turn toward each other. Hope encourages us to be generous, see the beauty in other human beings, reminds us to care for the least of us. We are able to respond when we let hope lead us.

Change is in the air. There is growing opposition against being afraid of fear, being overfed by media and news. Dangers, exaggerations and conspiracies. Since 9/11, an influential “fear industry” has taken root in the media and other opinion-shaping institutions and groups. It has consistently moved toward ever-greater gloom and hysteria, knowing this is the best way to get attention in a crowded marketplace of ideas. In today’s competitive information environment, extreme positions and amplified fear sells more advertising and wins a larger market share than balanced moderation. So far, much of the public has bought in. But I see small signs that people don’t want to be afraid anymore, they discover that social networks have turned into weapons of mass fear-mongering and distraction. That the dark seasons are for connecting with people again.

The confirmation quote I chose almost 40 years ago was: “And now these three remain: Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Almost everything has changed since I chose the quote. But my belief in those words has never been stronger.