With over a decade of experience advising some of the world’s largest tech and media companies on their labour and employment issues, Clarence Ding has something to say about the future of work. So we were delighted when he agreed to take part in our series of articles about exactly that subject.
Some background. Clarence is a partner and the head of the Singapore employment practice at international law firm Simmons & Simmons. He has a particular nous for sleuthing and spends a significant amount of his time helping clients uncover and remedy a wide range of misconduct issues.
Will this interview pass on all his wisdom? We will do our best. But we should definitely emphasise that the views expressed in this interview are Clarence’s personal thoughts and are not intended to constitute legal advice!
Who are some people (or one person) in tech you find inspiring, and why?
I am inspired by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that he single-handedly changed the way we interact with technology, first by revolutionising the personal computer, and then latterly through the development of the iPhone. For better or worse, he has made smartphones an integral part of our lives, which has allowed us to remain connected to one another in ways we would not have thought possible as recently as the start of this millennium.
I am also inspired by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma. The struggles he faced in his early life, from being born into poverty and facing numerous (and well-documented) rejections for jobs, are important lessons in tenacity and perseverance. His vision in developing Alibaba into an e-commerce giant is also laudable and stands as another example of him not giving up even though the initial years were tough and it seemed he was doomed to failure.
What jobs do you think AI might replace?
In the service sector, routine and repetitive jobs are likely to be most at risk from the advancements in AI, because these are jobs which AI can replace easily. We are already seeing this with AI-powered chatbots and “virtual assistants” taking over increasingly complex customer service functions, reducing the need for call centres and customer service executives.
As AI is a form of machine learning, able to process and analyse large quantities of data very quickly, it is also ideally placed to replace jobs that are traditionally data-centric. Data entry roles are therefore likely to become redundant, as well as some data analytics functions. Within the legal industry, we are already reaping the benefits of this as document review programs such as Relativity and Ringtail make short work of discovery and due diligence matters, previously the scourge of many junior associates and paralegals.
What are the major factors influencing the future of work?
The major factors influencing the future of work are, in my opinion and in no particular order, connectivity, collaboration and changing priorities.
In terms of connectivity, the Covid-19 pandemic showed many of us that it is possible to be productive without being chained to a cubicle in the office five to six days a week. Having let the genie out of the bottle, I believe that flexible working will become the new norm going forward.
As a corollary of this, we are likely to see a more decentralised organisational structure within offices, with key stakeholders and reporting lines cutting across geographies and time zones in a more organic way than we’ve previously seen. This is likely to give rise to regulatory and legal concerns insofar as there remains a need for accountability and conduct oversight.
In terms of collaboration, we are also likely to see more cross-pollination between individuals and teams regionally and globally. This will likely fan the flames by making the war for talent a truly global one – a data scientist in Singapore is likely to face competition for their job not just from the local market, but from other very high quality candidates in other countries, many of whom can be hired at a fraction of their salary.
Lastly, we cannot talk about the future of work without giving regard to the people who will be entering the workforce then. We therefore need to acknowledge the changing priorities brought about as Gen Z enters the workforce. At the risk of over-generalising, there is likely to be a shift in focus towards social justice and ESG initiatives as these young adults seek fulfilling and socially-positive careers, underpinned by work-life balance. This is in stark contrast to the ethos embodied by their parents.
Is there any science fiction writer that, in your view, successfully predicts the future?
I don’t think anyone has hit the proverbial nail on the head by accurately foretelling the future that we live in today. That being said, flying cars and giant robots notwithstanding, I do think some writers have accurately referenced themes that are becoming increasingly prescient as technology evolves.
My mind is drawn, in particular, to Philip Dick’s writing and his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which takes us to world where androids and humans have become indistinguishable.
As an English student in the early-2000s, we were taught to characterise this genre of fiction, and the subsequent works inspired by it such as Blade Runner, as dystopian. However, it is clear that in many respects, this dystopian future is becoming the future as we know it. Technological advancements in AI and robotics raise questions about the nature of humanity and what it means to be human, as well as the moral and ethical issues that arise from that.
How do you think the work office will change in the next ten years?
The office of the future is likely to become a venue for employees to meet and collaborate, as opposed to a place where routine work is carried out. We are already seeing commercial rental yields increasing at a slower rate in 2023, and property experts expect this to continue, as many companies weigh up the amount of space they need. In many cases, this has entailed a significant reduction in footprint, as well as the elimination of cubicles and offices in favour of productivity pods and brainstorming hubs.
What is a recent example of technology disrupting work that you found interesting?
It was recently reported that two NY attorneys landed themselves in hot water by relying on ChatGPT for their legal research. The attorneys were acting for a man who was suing Avianca Airlines for personal injury. They submitted a legal brief that cited several previous court cases in support of their arguments. The airline’s attorneys were unable to locate several of the cases cited, and highlighted this to the court, who then ordered the man’s attorneys to explain themselves. It then transpired that the man’s attorneys had used ChatGPT in their legal research and the cases which ChatGPT cited were fictional.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the man’s attorneys, particularly as it appears that they did try to verify the research by double-checking the cases cited, albeit within ChatGPT itself.
This case is interesting because, if anything, it reads as a cautionary tale of the dangers and limitations of AI at present. For all its ground-breaking advancements and language realism, ChatGPT is still at heart a language model which is capable of only generating “coherent and contextually relevant responses” (quoting ChatGPT itself). This is still a long way off from being able to analyse and synthesise issues in real time.
Still wondering about the Future of Work?
Our huge thanks to Clarence for sharing his thoughts for today’s interview. Below you can find a number of interviews we’ve published on the Future of Work:
- Michael Solomon, Founder at 10xManagement. “There’s going to be a protracted battle between those who wish to work from home and those who think productivity is harmed by remote work”
- Eva Pankova, Head of People, ROI Hunter. “A four-day week would definitely disrupt the market, making those companies that adopt it much more competitive. Just imagine a three-day weekend!”
- Deepesh Banerji, Chief Product Officer, Deputy. “The key to preparing for the future of work is to develop skills that are difficult to automate, such as creativity, critical thinking and emotional intelligence”
- Benjamin Taylor, Organisational Consultant. “This morning at Heathrow Airport I saw a cleaning bot stuck on a rubber line on the floor. In what world is it better to have £30K robots than humans?”
- Carmen Vicelich, serial entrepreneur. “Emerging markets will leapfrog some more mature markets through rapid digitisation”
- Philip Ross, author, futurist and CEO of Ungroup and Cordless Group: “The office of 2033 will become a more social, healthier, more sentient, elastic, digital, personalised, shared and purposeful space”
- Duena Blomstrom, author and CEO of PeopleNotTech. “Jobs of the future? Chief Psychological Safety Officers will be in, bureaucrats will be out.”
- Fazilat Damani, Chief Experience Officer at Design for Good. “AI won’t completely replace jobs, but rather evolve them.”
- Jimmy Lee, technologist and CEO of Nirovision. “The work each individual carries out will evolve to use AI copilots, but I’m hopeful that this makes the work even more productive, creative and gratifying!”
- Tony Hallett, MD of Collective Content. “The part of society most impacted by technology will be the world’s middle classes.”
- Colin Fraser, founder and Managing Director at Nevis Capital. “Professionals who can ‘supercharge’ themselves with AI tools will win big in our new world.”
If you have something to say about the future of work, please email us at [email protected].
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