Remaking fundamental human roles

The accelerating adoption of digital technology and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI), profoundly affects people’s roles as consumers and producers. We are at a critical turning point in the way that we interact with the world and the workplace

Smart future

EY recently convened discussions among leading disruptors and thought leaders at innovation-focused events in San Francisco to consider the implications and upside potential in these disruptions.

Digital disruption empowering consumers

“The future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” said Alex Tapscott of Northwest Passage Ventures, quoting futurist William Gibson. While digital technology and related business model disruptions have empowered individuals to participate in the resulting value creation by democratizing data, lowering entry barriers and expanding access. But it has also created new haves and have-nots—the benefits have accrued mainly in developed markets.

Continuing digital disruptions could bridge this gap as falling technology costs and new payment models put digital technology in the hands of billions of more people. Sharing economy advisor April Rinne pointed out that by 2020, 90% of the world’s population over the age of six is expected to have a mobile phone — altering expectations and democratizing access to everything from government to data as the world becomes massively more connected.

Meanwhile, blockchain — the distributed database technology invented by Bitcoin – is democratizing transactions. The internet has made large organizations more powerful by creating intermediaries and gatekeepers. Blockchain could change all that and put more power back into the hands of the consumer. Its secure central ledger could create trust and transparency and track transactions between individuals, eliminating the need for today’s powerful middlemen. “Imagine an Airbnb without Airbnb or an Uber without Uber,” said Alex.

Blockchain has emerged as the new “internet of value,” argued Stephan Dolezalek of Resourcient.

Stephan also highlighted how digital disruption is also democratizing energy, as mobile did with telecommunications. With energy assets becoming increasingly distributed and customer-owned, utilities will have to forge new customer relationships and focus on delivering dynamic services rather than energy only.

Reinventing workers

AI and robotics are transforming production, and the resulting disruption will be challenging. Stowe Boyd of Gigaom, pointed out that half of current jobs will likely be “ephemeralized,” asked, “What are people for in a world that no longer values our labor?”

Still, “[the disruption of work] is going to happen,” noted Stephan. “The question is how we embrace it.”  And the disruption brings potential upsides.

Technology will free people to do what they do best, said John Sotos of Intel. Doctors, for instance, are already inundated with growing volumes of patient data; machines could provide an AI-assist by processing information and adding much-needed context.

Stefan Heck, Founder of Nauto, argues for separating tasks suited for AI, such as monotonous, long-distance driving from those suited for humans, such as navigating a chaotic construction site.

In light of these developments, Rebecca Kantar, Entrepreneur in Residence at GLG, called for a radically different model for education and competency development. “Creativity is not fixed, and neither is intelligence,” she said. “But we’ve been developing people the same way forever. We need to instead teach them to think like entrepreneurs.”

Rebecca recommended discarding the notion that people need to be busy all the time. Rather, she said, give them the slack they need to innovate and create.

Key takeaways:

  • The upsides of digital disruption are rapidly globalizing. The resulting democratization of data, transactions and energy is empowering individual consumers in relation to suppliers, governments and each other.
  • It is important to embrace the inevitable disruptions coming to the workplace as a result of the adoption of AI and robotics. The key is to use technology to free people to do what they do best.
  • New modes of education and development that focus on entrepreneurship and creativity are needed to help individuals realize the upside of workplace disruption.


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