If we were to harness the full power of automation and artificial intelligence, what would that mean for our workforce? This was the topic of discussion at the Future of Work Forum; Automation, AI, Oh My! event hosted by WorkForce Central on Thursday, Sept. 27.

Martin Ford addresses the crowd, explaining current and historical trends in automation in the workforce.

“There is an emerging consensus that we are heading toward a huge disruption, maybe even a new era — a time where the world is going to work by fundamentally different rules from what we’ve seen in the past,” said keynote speaker Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future and Architects of Intelligence: The Truth About AI from the People Building It.

A recent study conducted by Workforce Central shows that nearly half (47 percent) of occupations in Pierce County are at high risk of automation due to a disproportionate share of retail sales, hospitality, and food service jobs in the county — with few computer, tech, and white collar jobs.

This is not only a regional concern; global data shows the same tendencies toward job displacement. “[Job market polarization] has been observed not only in the U.S., but in countries across the world,” Ford said. “People say, ‘Is it possible that technology could produce unemployment in the future?’ But, you know what, maybe it’s already here. Maybe we just aren’t acknowledging it ,and people aren’t noticing it. Maybe it’s all around us.”

But Ford is adamant that this change is one that should be embraced. New jobs will emerge, solutions to global issues like climate change could benefit from the power of AI, and he is a proponent for structural changes that can address some of the issues that arise with a decreased labor force (such as a minimum basic income so that individuals can still participate in the market economy without being labor dependent).

An industrial robot, built by the School of Advanced Manufacturing and Technology at Clover Park Technical College was on display at the event.

Ford’s keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion on AI and automation in the workforce, featuring local experts like Jaleesa Trapp, former computer science teacher at the Tacoma Science and Math Institute (SAMI) who helped start the Industrial Design Engineering and Art (IDEA) school in Tacoma; Andrew Fry, director of industry partnerships at the School of Engineering and Technology at the University of Washington-Tacoma; Deborah Tuggle, founder of Friday’s Cookies, Bite Me! Inc. and Seattle Shortbread, LLC; Ron Thalheimer, director of the Pierce County vertically integrated water bottling facility for Niagara Bottling; Carl Wenngren, mechatronics instructor at Clover Park Technical College; and Deb Curley, data scientist at MultiCare Health Services.

Guest speakers included Mayor Victoria Woodards and Linda Nguyen, CEO of WorkForce Central, who were both optimistic about the strategies our region can take to prepare for the upcoming shift in workforce demands. Nguyen announced the formation of a Future of Work Task Force, and encouraged community members of various backgrounds to participate. If you’re interested in being part of the Task Force, email wfcinfo@workforce-central.org. For more information, visit this website.