It is interesting to reflect back to 1995 when the internet first appeared on the glowing computer screens of the relatively small number of Canadians citizens who were relying on computers for their livelihood, communications and entertainment and consider how this technology has transformed the lives of almost everyone living on this planet – the ways in which we communicate with one another, find entertainment and, most of all, how we work.
As significant as these developments have been, most experts agree the full impact of these changes has not yet played itself out in all sectors of the economy.
At this point in the transformation, one might wonder exactly how significant the impact of technology change will be in the long term. Fortunately for Canadians, a recently published research study by Policy Horizons Canada (formerly known as the Policy Research Initiative) has arrived at the right time.
The report, entitled Metascan3: A Foresight Study, captures the views of 90 technology experts who have been asked to speculate about the future and how disruptive technological advances are going to impact on society in 25 years’ time. The four disruptive technologies are: digital technologies, biotechnology, nanotechnology and the neurosciences.
As a starting point, Policy Horizons Canada argues that the four technologies they have identified as crucial are “laying the foundation of the global economy for the next 50 years.” As a result, gaining a better understanding of how these four technologies are evolving, with a special look at their applicability in the workplace, will give considerable insight into the scenarios that are likely to play out in all sectors of society.
In general terms, one important impact of these emerging technologies is that, overall, there will be a very significant increase in workplace productivity but, of great significance, productivity gains will be accomplished by a dramatic reduction in the size of the workforce. The impact on the number and type of future full-time employment jobs will be considerable, but “ignoring or underestimating the rate of change will have severe consequences for workers” if remedial policy action is not taken as these technologies are introduced into the marketplace.
The rollout of these technologies will also challenge a number of conventional views of the Canadian economy. For one, the notion of a “national economy” will be severely tested since the new technologies will enable the creation of companies that are virtual, international, project-oriented networks and that rely on “virtual” foreign workers and just-in-time skills development.
Second, all sectors will be under pressure to adapt or they will not survive. Most of the new jobs created by these new technologies will be temporary ones with more contract and part-time work comprising the majority of newly created jobs. To further exacerbate the challenge, there will also be very intense competition from virtual workers in other countries, making the global workforce part of the local Canadian economy. Parenthetically, it renders the Foreign Worker Program a minor policy issue.
Moreover, privacy, as we know it, will be radically diminished. New patterns of income inequality will emerge since the benefits created by the emerging technologies will be spread unevenly in the population, with those who are on the forefront of change benefiting the most.
Finally, all infrastructure, but particularly that associated with health, transportation, security and energy systems, will need to be reconfigured to accommodate the changes sweeping through the economy.
These developments should not be seen as a “gloom and doom” scenario for Canada or Canadians. These disruptive technologies will also create great opportunities for national economic growth and individual wealth creation for those who can see the opportunities and who are prepared to take risks and to innovate.
One thought that permeates the report is that the impact on workers will be profound and highly disruptive for those who are already vulnerable in the workforce. It will result in considerably fewer full-time workers and all current employment that can be characterized as routine, both physically and mental, will be replaced by robotics and artificial intelligence.
Whatever our views on the value of technology, dramatic changes are coming in successive waves and policymakers have the responsibility to prepare for them as they would for any pending natural disaster or threat. At a minimum, readers should access the Policy Horizons report and take advantage of its many video and other information links.