THE FUTURE OF WORK: The story of John Henry and how not to die like a man.

The technological landscape is changing at terrific speeds more than you and I are changing our socks. The future is not what it used to be. The traditional jobs are under a grave threat as artificial intelligence (AI) is making inroads to permanently displace human-work-force in occupations we never ever imagined and officially declare most occupations human-free.

Is the future of your son Junior or daughter Pretty secure? In the light of technological innovations, it is uncertain whether your son or daughter will find that dream job or stand and look AI in the face and brave for a challenge.

I heard it in my thoughts that the future factories would have two employees, a human (man or woman) and a pet. That thought dispirited me and thought of the future of the kids to be born in an AI-dominated world. But this is not the first time human occupation is facing threat. It has ever happened not once but a number of times and humans have reigned in all cases.

There is a folktale that carries with it valuable lessons I find worth sharing. It is the tale of John Henry.

In the nineteenth century folktale, John Henry is described as “steel-driving man” whose job is to hammer steel spikes into rock. Historically, this was done to make holes into which explosives were inserted; these explosives cleared the way for new train track to be laid.

John Henry was the best of them all. One day, a stream drill was invented to do that same job. John Henry wasn’t about to be replaced by a machine, so he told his captain, “Well, a man’s gotta act like a man. And before the steam drill beats me, I will die, hammer in my hand.”

So, he challenged the steam drill to see which of them was better. It was a close contest, but John Henry prevailed. However, the work was so intense that John Henry collapsed and died of exhaustion on the spot immediately after the contest, hammer in his hand. People everywhere agreed, “John Henry died like a man.”[1]

Are graduates or those in the work-world already ready to be the John Henrys of the modern time. There are many choices that can be made. Becoming a John Henry is the worst-est choice.

Have you heard or read about an AI that writes songs? Yes, you are reading it right. Writing a lyrical song that can move crowds with excitement. There is an AI program, Archaeopteryx, an open-source artificial intelligence program that writes and plays its own dance music.[2]

Have you read about downloading your law advocate (read lawyer) from Play Store and confidently walk to the Courts of law and let the downloaded lawyer split law mysteries?

Times like these call for thinking outside the box or rather own the box. Thinking differently can be a shield against the coming AI. Our academic institutions need to recognize the sea-change and tailor the curriculum to enable Junior and Pretty best comprehend the situation at hand and find best ways to work around AI.

What could have John Henry done to survive and thrive? Competing with a steam drill was a formula to death. What if John Henry became an operator of the steam drill or became an engineer to design, implement and manufacture the steam drills? There were so many valuable options available for John Henry but he was blinded from them by his rigid-mind.

Any fore-sighted academic institution can easily recognize that computer programming is the new literacy. Making it integral in the curriculum shall have compounding rewards.

BTW, artificial intelligence can gain a first-mover advantage when it proposes to your fiancé when you are still kwetorora (hesitating). I am joking. That would be at the extreme of artificial intelligence.

My final hints:

Having concrete knowledge about AI and knowing the ins-and-outs of computer programming places you in a safer position.

Collaborating with AI instead of competing shall save a John Henry in you.



[1]. The Fourth Age: Byron Reese. The story of John Henry

[2]. So good that they can’t ignore you: Cal Newport: The remarkable life of Giles Bowkett



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