March 28, 2018

How can we adapt to a future of automated uncertainty?

Schulich Distinguished Speaker Panel tackles tricky workplace questions posed by technology

Graduating into the great unknown, equipped to adapt and evolve in a technology-driven world where change is rapid, constant and often unpredictable.

That’s the imminent reality for a generation of university students preparing to tackle a workforce where automated jobs and artificial intelligence will be the norm, and where the old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up” is no longer applicable, because so many future careers don’t yet exist.

“For all of us who have children in primary school, 65 per cent of them will be in jobs that haven’t been created,” said Cherise Mendoza, vice-president of human resources at Microsoft Canada.

“When you’re thinking about the lifespan of technology, it’s no longer about looking for that person with 15 or 20 years IOT (internet of things) or AI (artificial intelligence) experience, it’s about individuals able to learn technology, who understand about keeping up with that pace.”

Speakers talked about getting ready for the great unknown

Preparing for an uncertain future was certainly a major theme as Schulich School of Engineering’s Alumni Chapter hosted its annual Distinguished Speakers Panel, where a quartet of experts discussed and debated the evening’s theme: The Future of Jobs in an Automated World.

From the imminent extinction of repetitive factory and service jobs, to artificial intelligence takeover of careers in everything from driving to medicine, the forum on automation at McMahon Stadium’s Red and White Club was both awe-inspiring and slightly disconcerting.

“We’re not paying near enough attention to the increasing speed that change is taking place at,” said panellist Jim Gibson, entrepreneur and author of Tip of The Spear, a study on the impact of technology on the fate of our species.

“One of my 'Gibson three laws of technology disruption' is technology genies never go back in the bottle. As a species, we can’t put technologies back in the bottle.”

What graduate success looks like in an automated world

Naturally, at an event connected to a post-secondary institution like the University of Calgary, how to produce graduates who best succeed in an automated world was a key concern at the event, moderated by Robert Brennan, professor and department head of Mechanical and Manufacturing engineering at Schulich.

The general consensus: Equip students to be creative, adaptable and ready to keep learning for life.

“We have to learn at the same pace as machines do. My call to action is: ‘Stay connected to the universities you learn from and be a part of a community where you continue to build those skills,’” said Geoffrey Cann, a partner at Deloitte and that company’s expert on the digital future.

“Machines are not good at teamwork, generating insight, innovation, creativity — they still have a lot to learn.”

UCalgary earned praise from the panel for innovative programs like the combined Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Bachelor of Commerce degree now offered to students in as little as five years of study.

Automation coming fast, ready or not

The fourth panellist was Schulich’s Transmission Electric Industry Chair, Andy Knight, and he told the audience of 350 people that automation is coming fast — but what’s comfortable now may seem intrusive in the future.

Knight explained that meter readings done remotely already mean no more meter man having to access your yard — but someday soon, the power company may be able to lower your heat and air conditioning levels from afar, when there is too much draw on the grid.

“We’re on a sliding scale of automation and automated integration — at the moment we’re okay because we still have control of it, but at some point, it’s not just a what can we do, it’s a what are we willing to have happen.”

Adapting to change critical for success

Schulich School of Engineering Dean Bill Rosehart summed up the forum, attended by industry, academics, alumni, students and members of the general public, as a chance to reflect on how to ensure we are sending the best graduates forward into the future.

“Being able to adapt is critical to success in this evolving landscape,” he told the crowd. “As a leader in education and research, the Schulich School of Engineering draws on the combined strength of our faculty and staff to graduate students who are ready for this changing world.”