This is the most important skill you need in the future.

What do Jack Ma, Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt have in common?

They all believe that data science, the ability to work with data and analyse what it means for us, is going to be a crucial skill in the future.

More than a third of all jobs people are doing now could be done by computers in the next 20 years.

Jobs that involve empathy, creativity and high levels of social interaction are going to be safer than ones that involve manual skill such as dexterity and the ability to assemble components in a factory.

Adminstrative and office support tasks such as scanning and processing invoices could be taken over by algorithms.

The biggest change coming towards us is how everything is connected through the internet and the enormous quantities of data that are being created as a result.

Think of three key areas of human activity:

  1. Health
  2. Relationships
  3. Work

The amount of data that can be created and used in these areas is mind boggling.

Take health, for example. It is rare to find someone in any group of people not wearing a Fitbit.

Many people are measuring every aspect of their daily lives, a process called lifelogging or quantified self.

For people with heart trouble an iPhone could now save your life. A starup called AliveCor makes a device that connects to an iPhone and lets you take a medical grade ECG.

The AliveCor device helped a cardiologist save the life of a man 35,000 feet up on a plane because he could use the device to tell that the man was having a heart attack in real time.

Devices such as these could take many more measurements such as blood pressure, oxygen concentration, sleep apnoea and a host of others that mean people don’t need to go into hospitals and can monitor their health much better.

When it comes to relationships, facebook has transformed that space. The firehose of twitter produces a continual stream of chatter.

It is still early days for technology in this space. As many people have found, useful contacts tend to get drowned out in the noise that overwhelms such technologies, especially when marketers get involved.

So people move from email to facebook to whatsap to instagram in search of a plaform where they can connect with others without being overwhelmed by a deluge of irrelevant information.

But the algorithms are getting better at providing hypertargeted information as well. There is no such thing as a general search on google any more. A search that you make will be different from the one the person sitting next to you makes as the algorithms employed by Google work out who you are and exactly which results are likely to be more relevant to you.

Work sometimes appears to be the last bastion of resistance. It’s the one area of life where there is a sharp difference between companies that adopt new ways of working and those that don’t.

This is largely due to the power balance in organisations. Companies led by people comfortable with technology are likely to use different methods to communicate and work that ones that are not.

I was listening to a podcast where an author was talking about recording an audiobook in a studio. My ears perked up at the words “the producer dialled in on skype from New York”.

So, you have a distributed team doing that work. The author in a booth, with a sound technician outside and a producer on Skype. That is an incredibly effective way of getting a top producer to work with you without having to pay for travel and must make the organisation employing that producer even more effective.

The challenge facing organisations is one of declining productivity in a knowledge economy.

In addition to safe jobs requiring empathy, creativity and social skills, the next generation of high paying jobs will be ones that involve working with machines and algorithms to improve every aspect of our lives.

Also, perhaps we should be working on more interesting problems. Elon Musk said “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”.

A vast amount of data science work goes into figuring out how to manipulate people’s behaviour. That is the entire purpose of supermarket loyalty cards.

Although I suppose thats just good business.

But over the next 20 years, you would expect that other aspects of our lives would also get better as the technology and its application improves.

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