This Is Our Chance to Redesign Work. Let’s Make It Better

Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.

The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.

To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.

Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.

What Is Work?

“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.

We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.

Along Came a Pandemic

With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions of people in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.

“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”

Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.

1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.

2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.

3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?

4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?

5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.

Problem-Solving Doesn’t End

The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”

One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Companies finding more ways to automate their processes to keep people from getting sick. But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.

In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”

Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.

Image Credit: www_slon_pics from Pixabay




New Burger Robot Will Take Command of the Grill in 50 Fast Food Restaurants

Would your burger taste as delicious if it was made by a robot?

You’ll soon be able to find out at CaliBurger restaurants in the US and worldwide.

Cali Group partnered with Miso Robotics to develop Flippy the burger robot, which made its debut this week at the Pasadena, California CaliBurger.

Miso and Cali Group aren’t calling Flippy a mere robot, though; it’s a robotic kitchen assistant. And it’s not the first of its kind. San Francisco-based Momentum Machines has also been working on a burger bot for a few years.

Flippy brings some fresh tech to the table (no pun intended). Whereas in the past a typical assembly line robot (say at a car factory) needed everything lined up perfectly in front of them—precisely and consistently positioned—to do their work, robots like Flippy are using the latest round of machine learning software to locate and identify what’s in front of them and learn from experience.

That is, Flippy’s flexibility is a great example of robots becoming more flexible, in general.

Miso’s CEO compared Flippy to a self-driving car because of the way both use feedback loops to reach higher levels of performance.

Flippy doesn’t look much like how you may imagine a robot either. Its body is a small cart on wheels, and it has no legs and just one arm. The arm’s six axes give it a wide range of motion and allow it to perform multiple functions (as opposed to simply moving up and down or back and forth).

There’s an assortment of detachable tools the bot can use to help it cook, including tongs, scrapers, and spatulas, and a pneumatic pump lets it swap one tool for another, rather than a human having to change it out.

Combined with its AI software, these tools will allow Flippy to eventually expand its chefdom beyond just burgers—it could learn to make items like chicken or fish.

“CaliBurger has committed to using Flippy in at least 50 of its restaurants worldwide over the next two years.”

Some of Flippy’s key tasks include pulling raw patties from a stack and placing them on the grill, tracking each burger’s cook time and temperature, and transferring cooked burgers to a plate.

Flippy can’t single-handedly take a burger from raw to ready, though. Rather than adding extra ingredients itself, the bot alerts human cooks when it’s time to put cheese on a grilling patty. People also need to add sauce and toppings once the patty is cooked, as well as wrap the burgers that are ready to eat. Reportedly, Momentum Machines is working to include some of these additional burger assembly steps into its system.

Sensors on the grill-facing side of the bot take in thermal and 3D data, and multiple cameras help Flippy ‘see’ its surroundings. The bot knows how many burgers it should be cooking at any given time thanks to a system that digitally sends tickets back to the kitchen from the restaurant’s counter.

Two of the bot’s most appealing features for restaurateurs are its compactness and adaptability—it can be installed in front of or next to any standard grill or fryer, which means restaurants can start using Flippy without having to expand or reconfigure their kitchens.

CaliBurger has committed to using Flippy in at least 50 of its restaurants worldwide over the next two years.

What does this mean for the chain’s current line cooks, and for the future of low-skilled jobs in the restaurant industry?

Miso’s CEO acknowledged that his company’s product may put thousands of people out of work, but he also said, “Tasting food and creating recipes will always be the purview of a chef. And restaurants are gathering places where we go to interact with each other. Humans will always play a very critical role in the hospitality side of the business given the social aspects of food. We just don’t know what the new roles will be yet in the industry.”

Cali Group’s chairman envisions Flippy working next to human employees, not replacing them completely. But he also noted that the bot is part of a “broader vision for creating a unified operating system that will control all aspects of a restaurant, from in-store interactive gaming entertainment to automated ordering and cooking processes, ‘intelligent’ food delivery and real-time detection of operating errors and pathogens.”

As more restaurant operations become automated, demand for low-skilled jobs like line cooks will decline, but there may be a jump in demand for high-skilled workers like engineers. Even if the number of total jobs stays more or less stable, though, it will be difficult to bridge the resulting skills gap. One possible solution is for the same companies whose technology is eliminating jobs to invest resources in retraining displaced workers to fill newly created jobs that may require different skills.

Meanwhile, robot-made burgers may bring benefits both to consumers and to the restaurant industry; money saved on wages can be applied to sourcing better-quality ingredients, for example, and having machines take over a kitchen’s most hazardous tasks will improve overall safety and efficiency.

Image Credit: Miso Robotics

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.