Experts weigh tech threat to 21st-century workers

Rise of automation, gig economy set to make future employment more precarious

Simon Fraser University professor Jie Liang, president of AltumView Systems, demonstrates a camera system and facial recognition software that caregivers can use to track seniors in assisted-living facilities | Chung Chow

When Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) sought to uncover the common characteristics shared by its best-performing teams, the tech giant found it wasn’t specific personality types or technical skills that dictated A-level results.

“What they found was that the major determinant of team success was essentially social and emotional intelligence,” said Karen Bakker, professor and director of the program on water governance at the University of British Columbia, referring to a 2012 study as detailed by the New York Times. “It was sharing airtime equally. It was the ability to be sensitive to the other people’s social and emotional cues – even unspoken.

“I look forward to a world of work in 2050 where the engineers that are being trained at that point are as good at the social and emotional success skills as they are at the technical skills.”

Bakker, who also serves as director of strategy for the educational collaboration platform Riipen, was addressing concerns over the future of the global workforce at an expert panel facilitated by the B.C. Tech Summit.

The summit itself, held March 11–13, drew about 7,000 delegates ranging from entrepreneurs to investors to multinational corporation executives.

Among the made-in-B.C. technologies being showcased were robotic devices from Advanced Intelligent Systems Inc. and Eleos Robotics that could take over manual labour traditionally performed by humans, such as agricultural work.

And while many speakers at the conference delved into the economic potential behind artificial intelligence – that is, the ability to cut costs and improve productivity compared with human workers – the panel featuring Bakker and other experts dug into how advances in technology will fundamentally change the workforce in the next quarter-century.

“In a gig economy where more and more people are self--employed, we’re going to see a very different sort of relationship-building process where automation has taken away, let’s say, not menial but repetitive tasks out of the equation. It’s a very different, more conversational, relational approach to talent finding their match,” she said.

“And I … look at that really optimistically in the sense of a greater potential at least for authentic engagement for people to really find the work that they love doing.”

While Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft – two of the companies most associated with gig work – have not made their way into the B.C. market, that hasn’t slowed the gig economy from expanding dramatically.

A 2017 report from Intuit Canada estimated 45% of the workforce would be composed of independent contractors, freelancers and on-demand workers by 2020.

Peter Nunoda, president and CEO of Vancouver Community College, told the panel he’s advising students to prepare for a minimum of five career changes over the course of their lives.

“We know what the impact of machine learning, of artificial intelligence, is going to be on making some occupations obsolete, but when we talk about this in a post-secondary aspect what we’re looking at is how we can enhance those transferable skills,” he said.

During a keynote address March 12 at the B.C. Tech Summit, Premier John Horgan acknowledged that employers are looking at “strong headwinds on the horizon” amid a housing affordability crisis and growing child-care costs that are keeping skilled workers from moving to cities that need to fill gaps in talent.

“There’s no doubt that the hunt for talent is a major preoccupation of employers, companies, universities, colleges,” B.C. Jobs, Trade and Technology Minister Bruce Ralston told Business in Vancouver.

Five B.C. technology companies to watch

Advanced Intelligent Systems Inc.: Should we fear the robots? This Burnaby-based company is developing robotic devices that can replace many of the repetitive tasks performed by human labourers. On display at the B.C. Tech Summit was the company’s Big Top model, which functions as a robotic gardener at greenhouses.

dnaPower Inc.: Why do certain diets work like gangbusters for some people but deliver minimal results for others? Vancouver’s dnaPower produces DNA testing kits to help with diet and exercise so people know which foods to eat and which to avoid, based on their genetic code.

Ecoation: Is it possible to use your iPhone to know what a plant is feeling? This North Vancouver-based company predicts crop stress using plant signals and sends that information to growers via smartphones.

Eleos Robotics: Why use herbicides when this Coquitlam company has created the RoboWeeder? The autonomous robot controls weeds in agricultural land by directing precision microwaves at unwanted plants. “This,” said CEO Yahoel Van Essen, “is going to change the value chain for growers and allow the scaling down of farms.”

Epic Semiconductors Inc.: As artificial intelligence becomes more intertwined in our daily lives, this Vancouver firm is banking on its ubiquity by creating a “dust-sized” AI chip that can sense human action, physical forces, chemical reactions and vital signs.