The Future of Work: Where the Global Brain Meets the Brilliant Factory

April 2, 2014

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In 1926 Colliers magazine asked Nikola Tesla about his vision of the future. “When wireless is perfectly applied,” Tesla said, “the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.”

Tesla’s brain idea has been driving the growth of social networks for a while. Now it is starting to power innovation, technological progress and prosperity, according to “The Future of Work”, a new study by Marco Annunziata, GE’s chief economist, and Stephan Biller, chief scientist for manufacturing at GE. 

They write that the “global brain” will be a prime mover, together with networks of “intelligent” machines called the Industrial Internet and advanced manufacturing methods like 3D printing, behind a paradigm shift that will transform industry and shape the future of how we make things.

“We are witnessing the rise of the global brain, when a buzzing hive of knowledge, connectivity, technology and access unites the human and the machine, the physical and the digital, in previously unimaginable ways,” says Beth Comstock, GE’s chief marketing officer. “Scientific discovery, information sharing and sheer ingenuity are giving us the ability to hack our human brains to learn, do, be more. At the same time, we can model human intelligence into machines to help us gain insights, increase speed and know more.”

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Industries from energy and transportation to healthcare will benefit from connectivity, the global brain and advanced manufacturing methods like 3D printing. 

Everyone who sent her first email 20 years ago can see that connectivity, computers and technology are accelerating both the pace and the magnitude of change. Now every company, including manufacturers, is becoming a technology company.

Annunziata and Biller write that a new “deep and far-reaching” industrial transformation is already “fundamentally changing” the way we design and manufacture products, and what these products can do. “It is making the complex supply and distribution networks that tie the global economy together faster, more flexible and more resilient,” they say.

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The keywords for the future of work will be zero unplanned downtime, open innovation, and the “brilliant factory” – a new breed of a manufacturing plant where a single digital thread links design, engineering, production, supply chain and distribution.

Annunziata and Biller note that companies are already starting to rely on open-source innovation and crowd-sourcing, “two of the most effective ways to unleash the full potential of the global brain.”

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Collaboration platforms for engineers and data scientists, such as GrabCAD and Kaggle, are providing access to the global brain today. “Issues of intellectual property will have to be adequately addressed and new compensation schemes might need to be developed,” Annunziata and Biller write. “But the economic incentive is simply too compelling for this process not to move forward.”

The transformation won’t be painless. Some jobs and skills will become displaced and obsolete. “Technological progress, notably in high-performance computing, robotics and artificial intelligence, is extending the range of tasks that machines can perform better than humans can,” the authors write. But the shift “will push a growing share of the workforce towards creativity and entrepreneurship, where humans have a clear comparative advantage over machines,” they say. “They are ultimately the most defining and rewarding traits of humans in the workplace.”

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The authors write that the changes will reach beyond manufacturing to education and cyber security. “The Future of  Work will require time and investment, but it will reboot productivity growth and economic activity,” Annunziata and Biller write. “It will reshuffle the competitive landscape for both companies and countries, and it will fundamentally change—for the better—the way we work and the way we live.”

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