On jobs, AI and moving cheese

Dr Spencer Johnson's simple but seminal book Who Moved My Cheese? compares one mouse moping about someone moving their cheese, to another venturing out and finding more. It is a fantastic metaphor for how we should behave in the face of change and uncertainty.  (Although I admit there are a few people who have had an allergic reaction to the cheese metaphor…)

For most of us, technology will absolutely move our cheese in the next 10 years.  It’s inevitable.

"Anything that can be automated will be."
Alex Kewley, Director, Client Insights & Solutions, ANZ

As we have seen in the almost two centuries since the industrial revolution, anything that can be automated will be. In most cases, it will be done not just automatically (and therefore faster and better) but with no intervention at all - and pre-emptively before it is needed.


Take the example of knowing your customer (KYC) in a banking context. Today, the digitisation of transactions trigger a need for the parties involved to prove their identity and show they have the resources and experience to participate.

Each goes about completing this due diligence manually, with multiple humans doing hours of confusing research and typing. I know this firsthand having run an enormous project doing exactly that.

In the future, there is a scenario where this will be automatically triggered and completed in a matter of seconds by a centralised blockchain-based solution. The current approach will seem as archaic as painting a self-portrait, rather than taking a selfie on your phone.

I have seen countless other examples already in trial: intelligent mortgage decisions in two minutes rather than two weeks; deep-learning devices diagnosing illness better than your doctor can; automated legal resolutions rather than paying lawyers thousands to trawl through precedents – even 3D-printed production lines pre-emptively fixing themselves.

For any doubters, forget the amazing innovation under way - McKinsey estimates we actually already spend 45 per cent of our time on manual work which could be automated with current technology.

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All of this automation has one fundamental impact – as we have seen over the course of the past 200 years, there will be fewer jobs in the traditional sense and the roles that remain will change.

Does it mean thousands of people out of work? Possibly. Should this scare you? Not at all.

The resolution will be a combination of three things:

  • Jobs evolving into more enjoyable, value-add work;
  • A universal wage as we enter the age of leisure, probably paid for by robot productivity taxes; and
  • People much cleverer than us figuring out what else could go wrong to avoid a Terminator situation, for example AI being susceptible to data biases – although, given some questionable human decisions made in 2016, Skynet could hardly do a worse job.

Focussing on the first of these, the shift in job content is a huge opportunity for humanity to realise its potential.

My toddler will not be destitute because of AI when he hits 35 - he will be using his true talents and laughing at the jobs dad used to do. The KYC professionals of today will be programmers and insight-led problem solvers.

As the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane points out, jobs will be increasingly skewed towards either the artisan or complex cross-discipline human interaction (somewhat ironic given the time we spend staring at our phones rather than interacting today).

To find this exciting rather than scary requires a behavioural and cultural change. We need to learn to love data and technology and embrace change it brings.

We can start this already by constantly improving ourselves and purposely disintermediating our own jobs. If I can automate that 45 per cent McKinsey refers to today, just think of the incremental value I can create for clients with that time. Or box sets I can watch on Netflix.

Over the next 10 years, the convergence of big data and AI with physical robotics will fundamentally change the world. It doesn't matter if you are a blue collar production line worker, lawyer or even a top programmer in Google's innovation lab.

For those who accept this and embrace the hunt for new cheese, the innovation coming is exciting, and the cheese will be plentiful. And artisan - not processed cheddar.

Alex Kewley is a Director, Client Insights & Solutions at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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