Automation Anxiety: Fighting the Fear
With today’s field service technology resembling a scene out of ‘The Matrix’ and innovation moving at breakneck speed, concerns around the “robotification” of the workplace are intensifying and fueling interesting discussions.
While there’s no debate that the opportunity afforded by innovation is boundless, will smarter machines cause mass unemployment? We took a look at the current situation and made a few conclusions that might put some minds at ease.
Concern around the impact of technology on jobs is nothing new—if you’ve seen the endlessly entertaining Oscar-nominated movie, ‘Hidden Figures,’ then you know that even in 1957, people worried about the threat computers posed to their jobs. If you haven’t caught the film, it tells the true story of three extraordinary African American women—NASA’s so called “human computers”—whose brilliant calculations helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
However when NASA adopts technology in the form of the newest IBM mainframe, an underlying but not-so-subtle theme is the threat that these human computers will be replaced. But even then, it was clear that computers were not worth much without human programming skills.
Yet the debate persists.
While we are seeing some jobs move to automation, it’s consoling to know that even the world’s most technology-driven minds aren’t on board for robotification. In February, Bill Gates publicly stated that governments should tax companies that are using robots to replace humans as a way to at least temporarily slow the spread of automation and subsidize other types of employment. This strong position, combined with historical facts and common sense, lead to our opinion that humans are not, in fact, going to experience an apocalyptic-like deterioration of jobs.
Here’s what we know: to date, there has been no clear correlation between the rise of automation and unemployment growth. Sure, online banking and ATMs have reduced the need for tellers in banks, but other factors have resulted in an increase in staff needed to sell and support financial services products. We know that switchboard operators were replaced by telephone operators—who were replaced by automated answering systems—but we also know that the telecom industry exploded and career opportunities in that market continue to grow. For most automated advancements, there is a new skill set or function needed to drive it.
The topic of automation, jobs, and the future of work was also recently discussed by a panel facilitated by McKinsey Global Institute. Reid Hoffman, cofounder and former executive chairman at LinkedIn said “if you look at most of the automation, it comes down to man–machine combinations. And all productivity means is that when you have productivity increases, each person is doing more. And therefore, the unit—the number of people to do this amount of work—goes down, right? But that then creates resources for doing other work.” And the ‘other work’ means that people might need to augment their skills and remain open to the possibility that their jobs may change.
There’s no doubt that technology is becoming faster, smarter, better—but to date there is no technology that is not powered, at least initially, by a human mind. The promise of autonomous vehicles is all the rage, but experts maintain that self-driving cars won’t be ready for 15 to 20 years, and even then its potential is unknown. While it sounds transformational for the future of, say, delivery companies, there are questions like who will walk the delivery to the door? A drone, maybe? Possibly, but not today. Or tomorrow. And even then we’ll need human creators to develop and program the innovation. The other factor making this hard to swallow? Humans by nature are averse to change. And humans remain on the other side of that experience.
Keeping up with innovation in the workplace
There are varying ways to think about the impact of automation on jobs. Let’s consider a few ways to work with it:
- New tech requires new skills. People should always be enhancing their skills and developing new ones to compete in an uncertain job market. Being aware of your environment and keeping up with all new tech introduced in your workplace is a good place to start. Continuously hone and develop your skills; become as indispensable as possible.
- Be emotional. Many jobs, by their very nature, require human emotion, which has yet to be programmed successfully into a machine. From doctors and nurses to artists and writers, the world will always have a need for compassion, empathy, trust and personality. Social skills cannot be emulated by machines, and will always be critical for many jobs.
- Be curious. While it may seem intimidating when new technology is introduced, the best way to approach it is to be curious about it and how it can help. What is its use? Do people need training? Can you learn everything there is to know about it and position yourself as the go-to person for the tool or solution?
It’s safe to say that innovation is going to continue to mature in ways we can’t predict and some jobs will change and disappear—or be replaced—as a result. But the individual susceptibility of any job to being replaced will vary. Even as innovation continues to accelerate, so do people continue to mature alongside technology, and some of what we bring to the table will always remain just out of a machine’s reach.