Last year, drivers won victories stemming from legal cases against their ride-sharing companies —bringing public attention to gig workers' objections to being classified as independent contractor and in some cases requiring such app-based businesses to provide them with vacation pay and a national minimum wage.
Yet, with the inevitable expansion of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, the technological revolution is poised to wipe out more jobs than it creates.
A Tesla Motors car may be ready to drive itself across America by late 2017. Amazon is testing its drone delivery fleet in Britain — rather than basing these operations in the United States, since new FAA rules set limits on commercial unmanned vehicle use.
How Cyber Risks Can Impact Businesses
Unpredictable governance, radical changes to business models and exposure risks associated with the Internet of Things can have major consequences for businesses.
Non-employees may protest and litigate against client companies which fail to provide them with social protections in the gig economy.
They may face mounting public pressure to take responsibility for their workers' social protections as government funds shrink.
As automation causes job losses, businesses could see consumer spending reduced.
Failure to guard against cyber attacks may burden a company with reputational harm, regulator fines, costly litigation and hiked insurance premiums.
The ever-shifting nature of cyber risks, limits on coverage, and lack of policy standardization are causing uncertainty about which risks may actually be covered by cyber insurance.
"The fourth industrial revolution is a great opportunity to drive growth in many areas, whether it's in 3D printing, advanced materials, robotics, or artificial intelligence. All these great technologies come with huge advantages." -John Scott, Zurich Insurance Group
In a globalized world, such perils are fast evolving and can have domino effects on society, the environment, security, the economy and politics.
Recently empowered anti-establishment movements which have reshaped the political landscape, have largely held globalization responsible for job shortages and income inequality. Yet, between 1990 and 2007, technology caused an up to 80% drop in labor income nationally, according to research examined in the Global Risks Report (GRR) 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in strategic partnership with Zurich Insurance Group.
While lower skill, lower income jobs in areas like manufacturing and mining are clearly in danger of being automated, "there are plenty of jobs in the white collar world which can very easily be automated as well," says Scott, citing legal, clerical and banking roles.
Another trend, gig working — boosted by both globalization and technology— is said to be leading a labor force revolution. Even Fortune 500 companies like Amazon are hiring telecommuting reserve workers during busy seasons.
Yet, this flexible work comes at a cost. "Social protection systems are often not very effective for people working in the gig economy," notes Scott, “especially against the background of the low- yield economic environment.”
Workers may agree to non-standard employment contracts, which typically won't include sick pay, healthcare or pension plans. Social protection systems themselves – whether provided by governments, or the private sector – are under extreme funding pressures.
"This becomes a real challenge for business, because if people can't afford to look after themselves they're not going to be able to afford to buy their goods as well," he adds, "Often your customers are your employees."
For some gig workers, telecommuting out of state or overseas, there can be confusion over where taxes should be paid, resulting in shortfalls in public social protection coffers. Meanwhile, the trend of low birth rates and greying populations has also created economic challenges for governments, while demand for healthcare and support for the elderly is on the rise.
Scott believes change is coming. "App-driven businesses, as they get bigger, are going to be forced by social pressure and maybe governments, through legislation or regulation, to assume some of the responsibilities that large companies have held for quite some time."
Yet legislation and regulation in the tech sphere are currently far from ideal. The GRR 2017 found that of about 750 experts and decision-makers surveyed, over 40% ranked AI, robotics, and biotech as technologies that need better governance.
There have also been calls from the private sector for more clear and coordinated regulation around data protection, with the borderless internet-based commercial environment creating a legal minefield for businesses, as covered in the 2015 report Global Cyber Governance: Preparing for New Business Risks.
Both lack of legal clarity and excessive regulatory red tape can make investors wary of injecting capital into new tech — which could become illegal or subject to tough regulations.
Data has been dubbed 'the oil of the 21st century'
In a data-consumed post-Snowden world, perceived government overstepping in surveillance powers is a hot button issue.
In Britain, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 has been met with some concern from privacy campaigners.
While governments try to manage security and privacy-related risks in the face of terrorist attacks, excessive use of surveillance may threaten open and free societies.
Research has shown a long-term connection between free systems and democracy and GDP per capita growth.
'(Dis)empowered citizens' empowered by social media (a phenomenon highlighted in the GRR 2016) – can be a powerful driver of change.
In a “post-truth” world, reality may be at odds with politically motivated messages.
Cyber security too, especially in the age of big data, can give rise to cascading issues and have significant effects on businesses — as it did in the 'Panama Papers' and Sony hacking incidents. Such cyber attacks continue, with besieged companies (Yahoo! among them) facing damage to reputation or even potential regulator investigations.
But, technology is a double-edged sword, capable of solving as many problems as it causes.
The private sector is notably stepping up to educate and innovate.
Last year, Amazon, Google/Deep Mind, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft established the non-profit Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People & Society, which is helping address ethical concerns and lack of public understanding of AI.
"Business has responded in a very innovative way," says Scott, referring in particular to potential infrastructure network disruptions caused by such unexpected factors as software glitches, geomagnetic solar storms and cyber attacks.
He explains that companies which normally lease large-scale infrastructure are now also buying and stockpiling critical parts of power infrastructure, such as switching units, to address related network outages.
Technology's past may also be a hopeful indicator of its future. "With the previous three industrial revolutions, when new technology came in, some jobs disappeared but new ones were created," says Scott, adding that it may take a bit longer for this to occur today but that it will happen.
For now, navigating new risks in a changing world will require expertise, a steady preventative hand and the ability to identify possibilities. Scott concludes: "Behind every risk there's an opportunity."