Disruption, Resilience, Evolution, and an Autonomous Exit from WCRI

Last week’s WCRI Annual Conference theme was “Disruption, Resilience, and Evolution,” and it did not disappoint. Held in Phoenix, Arizona, it offered comprehensive information about the current state of the workers’ compensation industry, along with insight into what we might expect in the future. The selection of Phoenix for this year’s event proved to be fortuitous regarding futuristic trends; more on that in a moment.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Economics Professor David Autor, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor provided a tremendously entertaining presentation on technology’s impact on work and employment availability. For those concerned about the elimination of jobs because of increased automation, he provided a compelling reason to allay those concerns.

Autor reviewed past employment numbers against the progress of technological development in this country, showing that technological change has historically created more jobs than it eliminated. He says that consumers will always “want stuff,” and improved processes facilitate the insatiability of a more affluent consuming public. He also discussed new positions created by both expanding economies and technological changes, pointing out that in 1855, almost 60% of all people in the US worked in agriculture. Today, with heavy mechanization, it is only 2%. On a broader scale, he noted that 60% of all jobs today did not exist in 1940.

Those positions were created out of evolving markets and demands, mostly fueled by technological changes and advancements along with increased calls for services from a more affluent society.

Perhaps most interesting, was Autor’s discussion of augmentation and the future of artificial intelligence. He argued that the availability of equipment and tools, driven by new technologies, is augmenting the ability of the workforce to be more productive while working in safer environments. This is a trend we have been seeing for some time and it is certain to continue.

Regarding Artificial Intelligence, he theorized that it has the potential to support “less expert” workers by providing them with the ability to complete more complex tasks competently. In fact, he told the audience that AI’s biggest impact could potentially be on those workers with lower and mid-range wages, as it will allow them to increase their value and ability, while potential risk exists for those with expert skills, as their importance could be diminished in the process.

Overall, it was an excellent presentation and an appropriate launch for an informative conference. However, it was a bit of a departure from WCRI’s regular content. WCRI excels at analyzing and reporting on recent happenings and trends in the workers’ compensation industry. They are much more conservative when it comes to predicting the future. Of course, even Autor noted that no one can really know what will actually happen down the roaad, but his analysis was compelling.

I’ll have more on the event later this week, but in the meantime, I mentioned that the selection of Phoenix may have been “fortuitous” given the theme of this keynote and conference. That is because attendees of the event were treated to one of the most startling examples of how technology is driving changes in our society. And ironically, the example was one that was not only driving changes; it was driving us.

Phoenix, it turns out, has been the first city where fully autonomous Waymo cabs have been put into service. They started in Chandler, a relatively small suburb of Phoenix, but have since expanded service into the city itself. Conference attendees were treated to the sight of cars with no one in them zipping around the streets of the city. My business partner, Mark Pew, and I being somewhat nerdish in nature decided that the Waymo driverless vehicle would be the way we would return to the Phoenix airport. For added entertainment value, we invited friend and WorkCompCollege.com trustee Stuart Colburn, along for the ride.

To say it was a fascinating experience would be an understatement (we did live stream the event – that video is below). You hail a cab on an app, a car with no one in it rolls up, and after you are firmly secured (seat belts are a requirement), the car rolls off on its journey. A lot of thought has gone into the “comfort experience” for passengers in these cars. The car is an all-electric Jaguar. A voice greets you by name as you enter. You may stream the music of your choice, either through satellite or your own personal device. Overall, it was a pleasant and impressive experience.

And it could not have been a more fitting exit from a conference that dared to take a glimpse into the future.

(Video Run Time 12 min 44 sec. Rated PG-13 due to language.)