Robots (probably) won’t steal your job

If you follow the headlines about technology and the future of work, you’re probably starting to get a little nervous. At best, you’re worried that you’ll have to find a new job in a higher-skilled field and maybe have to go back to school or retrain. At worst, you’re imagining a dystopian future where automation and artificial intelligence have left us all unemployed and under the rule of robotic overlords. Although it is impossible to predict the future, looking at the current state of technology and the workplace and glancing over the horizon at what’s likely to happen in the next few years, I believe that changes are in store for all of us, but it won’t mean mass unemployment. Jobs and the nature of work will certainly change. Humans will have to learn to work alongside robots. Decision-making will be augmented by analytics and artificial intelligence. The future of work will look different than it does today, and it’s already upon us.

This has all happened before…

Historically, the trend toward automation is not new. Technology has advanced continuously for almost as long as humans have been on the planet; we have always developed and utilized new tools to help us do our work faster and more efficiently. The agricultural industry has long utilized automation to help with sowing and harvesting and is now utilizing big data and analytics to improve harvests. Manufacturing has seen drastic changes to shop floors with robots both replacing and working side-by-side with humans. We’ve seen all this before, so the fact that additional industries and job roles are becoming automated shouldn’t surprise us.

Even with all of the automation that we have already seen, unemployment rates have not drastically changed. There have certainly been periods of higher unemployment with technological advancements as some jobs are replaced, but, so far, new jobs have eventually been created to develop and support the new technology. Labor gets redistributed where it’s needed. People are retrained. New jobs we never imagined are created.

Evidence points to this continued synthesis of humans and technology in the near future. Technology has always been an enabler of human capability, not a replacement. That’s not to say that jobs won’t be lost or irrevocably altered in some way. McKinsey estimates that 60 percent of all occupations across industries have at least 30 percent of associated activities that could feasibly be automated, and five percent of jobs can be completely automated. If tradition holds, even this small percentage of jobs likely to be lost will be replaced by the creation of entirely new ones focused on new technologies. Of course, highly skilled workers will fare better than lower skilled ones as tends to often be the case given that repeatable, menial tasks that are typically part of lower-skilled work are the most easily automated.

…but this time it’s different

There is one new development, however, that should leave us questioning whether these historical trends will continue into the future. Technological evolution has so far been about physical automation of labor. Even the advent of the computer has thus far only helped to automate mundane office tasks like crunching numbers, analyzing data, and processing at high speeds. Our analog world has been converted to digital, but it’s mainly physical processes that have changed. Robotic arms replaced human limbs. Hard drives and solid state memory replaced film and tapes. Email and messaging replaced letters and interoffice memos. The mediums through which we do our work have evolved greatly, but our cognitive processes have remained mostly unchanged. Sure, technology may help us better capture ideas and give us more data with which to make decisions, but technology hasn’t been making decisions for us. All that may be about to change.

Knowledge and managerial work have mostly remained safe from the dangers of automation; specific tasks have been streamlined and automated, but a human ultimately uses the output from automated processes and makes business decisions. Artificial intelligence may finally reach a point in the next few years where it will make better decisions than a human. Think about it, AI would have access to billions of data points that a human could never process, it wouldn’t be prone to any type of bias that inherently comes with any thought the human brain has – except whatever bias may inadvertently be programmed into it by a human – and it can do all of this in fractions of a second, responding in near real-time to any changes in business metrics or KPIs connected to it.

Automation of the human mind and decision-making represents a shift from past trends of more “traditional” automation. It is impossible to tell just how much of an impact this will have on business processes, decision-making, or employment. Personally, I remain skeptical that AI will completely replace the human ability to think and manage business operations. There is still a lot to be said for gut extinct developed through years of personal experience and knowledge extending beyond what can be captured through big data, IoT, and analytics, not to mention the ability of the human mind to create and innovate. AI that is capable of that level of cognition is likely still decades away, at least in an applied, operational capacity.

Preparing for the future

Ultimately, automation and artificial intelligence will continue to prosper and even be a necessity in the future. In many developed countries, demographic shifts and aging have resulted in a dearth of workers. There simply aren’t enough people to replace the aging, retiring workforce which will lead to all kinds of economic and societal issues such as negative growth and strained entitlement systems, issues I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that economic growth and inclusiveness, increased productivity, and social cohesiveness may all depend on harmony between humans, automation, and artificial intelligence.

Netflix, and specifically their landmark show, House of Cards, is a great example of the harmony that can be achieved between people and technology. Big data and statistical analysis help Netflix determine what kinds of television shows and movies people might want to see. Viewers like political thrillers. And Kevin Spacey. And films by David Fincher. Better yet, the same viewers like all three. Technology helped Netflix make those connections, but no AI could put together the creative side of the equation that would make House of Cards the major success for the company that it has become. That relies almost entirely on talented and creative humans – writers, actors, directors, etc. – who can turn the output of an algorithm into something entertaining people will actually pay to watch.

Achieving this kind of harmony between humans and technology won’t come easily. Most of us will have to change the way we think and behave, whether by working side-by-side with a robot on the shop floor or having artificial intelligence help guide our decision-making. We might need to learn new skills and foster within ourselves a sense of lifelong learning. We will have to reach far outside our comfort zones to take on new tasks as many of the old ones we are used to become automated. Achieving lifetime expertise in one area will likely lead to our own destruction as industries and jobs disappear or morph into something entirely different; the polymath will rule the world.

Organizations will have to learn to be more agile to cope with regular technological disruption. Training and hiring the right type of skillsets and talent will become more important than ever. All of the business processes, systems of governing and making decisions, hiring practices, definitions of employment, organizational culture and so on will have to adapt to the coming changes. Digital leadership will be a key factor in adapting to all of these changes. Leaders must understand the coming technologies and the impacts that they will have on their industry, organization, and workforce, and then lead their employees through the change.

None of these changes will be easy, but it really is entirely up to us whether we are able to gracefully adapt and evolve or get left behind.