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Technology may be disruptive but don't fear it, ASU's futurist says

Jobs will change but people are in control, Johnson tells State of Our State Conference

ASU futurist Brian David Johnson speaks at a conference
November 07, 2017

Technology is disrupting our lives at an ever increasing pace, but Arizona State University’s futurist in residence has a message about that: Don’t be afraid.

“I’m an optimist,” said Brian David Johnson, whose title encompasses his roles as a professor in the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination and as director of the ASU Threatcasting Lab.

“Because I know the future is not fixed. The future is built every day with the actions of people, and we should all get together and make sure we don’t build a future that sucks.”

Johnson spoke at the State of Our State Conference on Tuesday, the ninth one held by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU. The annual conference explores issues affecting Arizona; this year’s event focused on innovation and disruption by technology.

“It begins with people and ends with people, and there’s lot of technology and stuff in between — but it’s always about people,” he said.

Johnson said that autonomy in land, sea and air transportation is coming, as is industrial artificial intelligence, which will not only process information but will be social, “knowing” the people it encounters.

“Imagine if we create a sentient building to make you feel as secure and welcoming as possible,” said Johnson, who also is a professor of practice with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU.

“Are we educating the workforce to interact with sentient tools 10 to 15 years from now? We’re not, but we need to.”

Workforce disruption was one theme of the conference, and the panelists agreed that education must focus on critical-thinking skills to keep up with the changes.

Jaime Casap, an ASU alumna whose title is education evangelist for Google, frequently speaks to young students who are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“It’s a stupid question,” he said. “Jobs in the future don’t exist yet. Cashier jobs are going away, so in a grocery store imagine that instead of 10 cashiers you can have a person in each aisle and they’re dietitians or food experts.

“That’s why we need to teach those most important skills of collaboration and critical thinking.”

Rapid change in the workforce can exacerbate inequities, and access to new kinds of education must be universal, according to Luke Tate, assistant vice president and executive director of ASU Opportunity Initiatives. He noted that from October 2016 to April 2017, the United States lost 100,000 retail jobs.

“What we need are universally available pathways for people to build skills and continually augment their skills, not just students but also later-life workers,” he said.

“There are areas of the West Valley where a higher percentage of jobs are threatened to be destroyed, and in Chandler, where there’s already technology employment, more jobs will evolve and not go away. We have to plan for that.”

Megan Garcia, senior fellow with the New America Foundation, said her organization is working with ASU to re-examine the future of work.

“In Phoenix, the jobs most likely to be automated are retail salespeople and food-and-beverage service workers,” she said. “Jobs that won’t become automated are those that require knowledge and human interactions,” like a kindergarten teacher.

The conference also included a panel that addressed questions on the future of automated vehicles, such as: Will the vehicles improve highway congestion or make it worse? What happens when a city look doesn’t need parking spaces anymore, and how will local governments replace that lost revenue? What will an automated car of the future look like if it doesn’t require a steering wheel and brake pedal?

And what about people who like to drive? Panel moderator Duke Reiter, senior adviser to ASU President Michael Crow and executive director of University City Exchange, asked that question.

“The fact that people know that 35,000 people a year are killed but never for a moment think about not driving shows how much people associate cars with freedom,” he said.

Tekedra Mawakana, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Waymo, said she doesn’t expect autonomous cars to take over.

“People will always love their cars and it’s not an either/or. I think for a long time we will have both. I love driving when I want to drive. I love the idea of not having to drive,” she said.

Waymo announced on Tuesday that its self-driving cars operating in Arizona will now be truly driverless. Previously, the vehicles were operating autonomously but still had a driver behind the wheel.

Mawakana said that the driverless cars will likely disrupt the traditional notions of who most readily accepts new technology.

“It’s important in this case to think about who cares about safety and mobility. Not a lot of young people will be contemplating mobility options,” she said. “I caution against using an old paradigm in a new opportunity.”

Grady Gammage Jr., senior research fellow for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said that knee-jerk political reactions can get in the way of meaningful discussion about important issues, and that’s why events like the State of Our State are important.

“What technology seems to have created is a space of less nuance, where we hang out with only people who agree with us or listen to commentators who don’t give us sophisticated public-policy responses but give us knee-jerk reactions,” he said.

“And we’re talking about those things here.”

The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU is marking its 35th anniversary of creating nonpartisan research, analysis and discussion. Find out more here

Top photo: Brian David Johnson, ASU's futurist in residence, is optimistic about how technology will change our lives, he told the State of Our State conference on Tuesday, sponsored by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now