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At Davos, experts weigh threat of automation

Members of the international business elite, along with assorted celebrities and other luminaries, are converging on the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, this week to attend the annual edition of the World Economic Forum.

But Davos, which kicks off Wednesday, is more than a place where global movers-and-shakers can network, meet in private and perhaps get in some skiing. The WEF also has a public agenda, which this year focuses on hot-button issues including the Ebola epidemic, climate change and evolving global labor landscape.

According to the WEF's Global Strategic Foresight Community (GSFC), which is looking at how employment around the world is changing, there are a variety of "narratives" when it comes to envisioning what jobs will look like in the future.

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One recurring theme, according to the group, are concerns about technology displacing workers -- a future, as the WEF says, "in which permanent jobs will fade away and machines increasingly perform cognitive jobs in place of people, forcing automation and, as a result, unemployment across the employment spectrum, including high-skilled and white-collar labor."

Those fears, while not totally unfounded given the history of automation, require context. Peter Schwartz, senior vice-president of global government relations and strategic planning at software maker, says the current slowdown in economic growth is due to the world being in a "transitional stage," as we await the next big technological breakthrough.

"Current research in areas such as ICT (information and communications technologies) and big data, biological and molecular engineering, and understanding gravity will create vast new technologies, whole new industries and a great many sources of economic growth," Schwartz predicts on his GSFC web page. "We need to think beyond restrictive mindsets and consider how to make this transition as efficient as possible."

Another expert believes we shouldn't ignore the employment opportunities brought about by breakthroughs in the so-called "creative economy" -- fields such as the arts, books, graphic and interior design, new media, fashion, film, and music -- where global revenue over the last decade has more than doubled.

"Creative services continued to grow even during the recent global financial and economic crisis, and could grow significantly more as technology advances and incomes increase in emerging economies," said Stefan Hajkowicz, principal scientist in strategic foresight at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's national science agency.

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Hajkowicz also believes these creative services have an important place in the present and future global economy, as they generate cost-efficient revenue, encourage cross-culture exchanges and help people escape poverty.

And what about the widespread fears of robots taking our jobs? Trudpert Schelb, director of strategic transformation at Seimens, the German multinational engineering and electronics group, thinks that's unlikely.

For the future, Schelb envisions more globalized DIY economy, in which new, low-cost technologies encourage individualization and allows individuals "to produce and consume an increasingly tailored blend of products and services, disrupting traditional business models."

But he warns such individualization could also create a "dangerous dependence" on the backbones of those technologies, in areas such as IT platforms and smart energy grids, which could lead to "significant degrees of monopolistic power."

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