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Will You Soon be Training your Robot Replacement?

From drone fleet engineers to autonomous vehicle managers, new, specialized roles will take the place of many traditional public-sector jobs.

by / August 13, 2014
Illustrations by Patrick Welsh

Drone Fleet Engineer

A few years ago the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set a deadline of September 2015 for full civilian drone integration into national airspace. As civilian drones take the air, it’s natural that government agencies will follow.

Today, potential government drone use cases are popping up in new research projects weekly. There are drones that search for damaged pipes and power lines, drones that repair tunnels and potholes, and waterborne drones that check sewers for damage while monitoring chemicals in the water. Early experiments by several pizza companies and forecast that it’s only a matter of time before drones are routinely used for rapid air delivery. The FAA predicts there will be 30,000 drones in operation by 2020, many of which are sure to be government operated.

Maintenance of municipal drones likely will be outsourced to contractors, but managing the fleet will be government’s job. A drone fleet engineer will be responsible for monitoring what the drones are doing, directing them to new tasks, or sending people to physically retrieve the machines when there’s a problem. Real-time sensor data will show where the drones are, what they’re doing and what they see. As an integral part of the Internet of Things, drones will play an important role in a government’s predictive data capabilities.

Collective Intelligence Engineer

As the world economy flattens, more agencies will turn to the public for manpower, products and ideas — especially as baby boomers leave the government workforce. The collective intelligence engineer will serve as the conduit who brokers the relationships between management and the outside world.

A recent informal NASCIO survey found that 40 percent of the public-sector IT workforce would be eligible to retire within the next year. In most states, more than 50 percent of public-sector IT workers are above the age of 50.

Not only are workers poised to leave, finding replacements isn’t easy. “The interest of those under 30 years of age to work in state government is very low,” said Doug Robinson, executive director of NASCIO.

As baby boomers head out the door,  it is likely that government IT staffs will shrink. Technology as a service is supplanting the need for in-house workers, and increasingly intelligent software is replacing the need for menial human labor inside and outside of government. The human IT skills that are needed will be more often found externally, Robinson said, adding that the role of government will be not to provide talent itself, but to broker needed skills from the outside.

Collective intelligence engineers will be an integral part of government IT in five to 10 years, said Dustin Haisler, a former local government CIO who now is chief innovation officer for e.Republic (publisher of Public CIO). The Internet has transformed America from a consumer economy into a creation economy, and there’s a surplus of talent waiting to be tapped.

“Basically everything that’s happening in the sharing economy with Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk, MobileWorks, all these organizations are all built around making human intelligence accessible in an HTTP request,” Haisler said. “It’s basically a protocol to access human labor.”

Even for traditionally internal government functions, agencies will turn to the public to find the skills and information they need. Projects like The Copenhagen Wheel, a device that turns bicycles into data collectors, foreshadow a future where everything people do will generate some form of usable data.

“You’re going to have this new role of someone who understands behavior and human intelligence and the whole aspect of connectivity that helps design systems to leverage people in ways to create value for communities and for cities,” said Haisler. “It could be as simple as environmental reporting or it could be as complex as, ‘How do we crowdsource a business process?’ The future workforce is going to be completely decentralized.”

The roots of a decentralized workforce can be seen in government projects today, particularly in work by the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). An app like Street Bump, which uses citizen smartphones to passively monitor roads and identify potholes, is the kind of thing that will become more and more common in government, said Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the office.

The shift toward greater public cooperation means it’s important for government to build trust with its citizenry, Jacob said, and that can be difficult. One challenge for collective intelligence engineers will be appropriately reframing government problems so the public can address them. It’s an art, Jacob said, and all signs point to greater public involvement, not just with participation in government but also in direct decision-making.

A California-based startup called PlaceAVote is trying to reshape representative democracy by placing two candidates in political office who would act as a conduit to the public will, voting on issues based on the outcome of votes made through an app. In 2016, the company will attempt to place 20 more filler candidates in major cities around the country. The idea may fail, but the attempt alone shows that there’s a will to use technology as a connector between people and government.

MONUM Co-Chair Chris Osgood pointed to his office’s Public Space Invitational as another example of how government will partner more with the public to solve problems. The program asks residents for ideas to improve the city’s public spaces.

“The collective intelligence engineer will do for procurement what Wikipedia did for Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Osgood said. “It will totally disrupt the way in which government partners with entities to solve real, challenging problems that they face.”

Machine-Learning Engineer

As organizations turn to a decentralized workforce, and increasingly rely on machines that collect and feed on data, there’s another effort to make those systems intelligent enough to work without any outside help.

But before that happens, someone will have to hold the software’s hand as it learns how to replace everyone. A machine-learning engineer will drive productivity and efficiency to unprecedented heights, assisting artificially intelligent systems in completing the tasks they can’t yet do on their own.

It might sound silly, but many intelligent, successful people are taking the threat seriously. Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk told CNBC in June that he’s worried of a possible future that resembles the war-torn Earth seen in the Terminator movies: humans struggling daily to prevent their own extinction.

Many believe true machine intelligence will arrive in less than 20 years. Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil thinks the world will reach technological singularity in 2045. No one knows for sure when it actually will happen — if it happens at all — but machine intelligence is witnessing exponential growth today, said Martin Ford, entrepreneur and author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.

The pool of jobs that robots can do is growing as they learn to do more sophisticated tasks. “Any job you can think of now where someone sits in front of a computer or a telephone and does the same kinds of things over and over again, that’s very likely to be automated 20 years from now,” Ford said. Automation is one thing, but most human jobs require at least some quotient of rationality, and that’s where machine learning will bridge the gap from replacing menial labor to replacing most kinds of labor.

A New York-based startup called WorkFusion created a platform that automates much of the work a middle manager might do. It can post work ads to job boards like Craigslist, analyze the skills of the respondents, rate them, and assign various tasks based on what’s most appropriate for their skill sets. Software today isn’t smart enough to do the kind of work the people being crowdsourced are doing, but that’s where WorkFusion’s other features set it apart.

“Initially, it automates the management level, and so far, that sort of sounds OK for jobs because it’s actually creating work for people to do under the direction of this AI system,” Ford said. “[But] as these people are working, it essentially learns from what they’re doing and it incrementally can automate their work further. As they’re doing things, they’re required to mark it up in ways that indicates to the machine exactly what they’re doing so that the machine can, over time, understand what they’re doing and further automate the whole process.”

A spokesperson at WorkFusion explained that the company’s software is the stepping stone for a new paradigm of outsourced labor. As the middle layers of the workforce disappear, organizational leaders will use platforms like WorkFusion, until software learns how to replace their jobs too.

“There are a lot of people who believe in a singularity,” Ford said. “There are a lot of people who think that by the end of the 2020s, we’re going to have machines that can think. I don’t know. To me, that’s highly speculative and it sounds a little bit aggressive, but anything is possible.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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