I still remember my sheer delight in my first job when I was given a shiny new twin floppy drive IBM PC. I was the most junior employee with the most up-to-date kit, purely because I was the only person who could build and run spreadsheets. In the ’90s and early 2000s there was the joy of a new laptop every 3 or 4 years.
Then things changed with smartphones and tablets. Suddenly office tech felt pretty old hat. We went from delight to disappointment with our tech at work fairly quickly. The disappointment then grew into something completely different: fear.
What brought on this change? The constant media reports that robots and technology will outsmart us and make us redundant. But really, is fear the right way to face new technology? It’s a topic I have been following and writing about for a few years now, and I strongly believe that joining the new wave and learning about the new technologies is what will help us “befriend the robots” and stay competitive in the digital world.
The new narrative plays to our fears
Media coverage still very often talks about how robots or artificial intelligence (AI) will replace people, be it teachers, bankers, junior lawyers (researching legal precedents), carers and the like. “Robots are becoming classroom tutors. But will they make the grade?”, “Members of European Parliament vote on robots’ legal status — and if a kill switch is required”, and “Could robots be marking your homework?” are just some media headlines. White-collar workers it seems are under threat, en masse. The threat of significant white-collar unemployment in developed economies hits a nerve, and some pretty large figures have been bandied about. However, historical evidence from farming and manufacturing shows that the advancement of technology such as automation brings a new growth of employment over time, after some initial displacement.
We have the choice how to use and respond to technology
Employers and organisations are rushing to embrace robots for process automation and AI for everything from medical research and diagnosis to fraud detection and prevention. And we all know about self-driving cars. There’s an interesting choice to be had here: Do organisations simply deploy these technologies to reduce operating costs (i.e., replace people) or choose also to enable people to work better and create greater value (and revenues)? Robots marking homework can enable more teaching time and perhaps reduce classroom sizes. With expert medical systems and remote robotic hands, a skilled surgeon in the United States could remotely operate on a child in Africa. In offices, freedom from repetitive manual processes creates more time for interesting, value-adding work and servicing customers.
If we embrace and deploy these technologies intelligently as our next set of tools, we can enhance the world of work, make jobs both more enjoyable and productive, and make the most of the skills we possess that cannot yet be modelled, programmed and scaled. Let’s take an example from automobiles. In most modern car plants, car bodies are painted by robots. Once the robots are trained by a master painter, they are far more productive and consistent than humans. But later in life if that car is in an accident, the repair will be done by a skilled repairer. As each repair is different, this is not something a robot could do.
As individuals, we have a choice either to fear or embrace this next wave of technology. If we choose to embrace it, we may need to double down on our unique skills and how we create value, perhaps increase our skills or retrain. Become the master repairer and painter. Or become the person who knows how a process, function or business really works, and what can be automated and what cannot. Let’s not forget that all organisations ultimately deal with people as their clients, customers or end users. Successful organisations tend to have very strong, positive cultures; they are the sum of the behaviours of their employees. Technology may often be the science of an organisation, but the art of the possible remains very much in our hands.
Don’t ignore the change, get involved
No one enjoys a bad process that’s automated or a poorly executed technology. There are numerous examples from interactive voice response phone menus, to voice control in cars, to self-checkouts in supermarkets. It is people who make the difference, for better or worse.
Perhaps we will soon be living in a world where we have Google cars, AI-enabled doctors, robot teachers’ assistants and carers for the elderly. Whether this is better for ourselves, our organisations and society is down to us and the human choices we make.