Friday, 8 November 2013

Keeping your job in the technology race



Creativity and social intelligence will be needed to adapt to an increasingly automated and unequal world.

If you hate chores, then Roomba's suggestion, 'Let a robot do your dirty work' may strike you as a welcome solution. From automated vacuum cleaners to robots that wash windows and mow lawns, accelerating automation is not only eliminating your time-wasting chores, but your jobs. How do you plan to keep yours?

Replaced by a more intelligent model

Have you heard of the "decision factory"? In his article for HBR, Roger L. Martin recalls an experience with a CEO who automated his old bread bakery to save money. On one hand the CEO reduced direct labor costs by 60%, but on the other hand his state-of-the-art equipment ended up requiring expensive knowledge work. The CEO had a new problem, one that Martin sees a solution for: a "decision factory". He points to the advanced techniques of Proctor & Gamble, where the time-wasting process of data-gathering was replaced by an algorithmic piece of software that automatically generated content for managers. The managers were freed to focus more intently on strategic planning because the "decision factory" produced the kinds of knowledge they would need. As Martin points out, such algorithms are advancing and are now capable of compiling knowledge such as technical reports (e.g. marketing professor Philip Parker).

Knowledge workers may soon be poised for elimination as algorithmic solutions advance for their jobs. The looming trend was forecast in 1995 by sociologists Aronowitz and DiFazio, who expected automated technology to bring about The Jobless Futurethe title of their book. They explained that knowledge work and computerisation are based in a market rationality that privileges the same Taylorist management principles that are applied in factories. Keep in mind that 60% of today's trades are being executed by computers with little oversight by humans (n.b. risk of crash); is it so difficult to imagine the day when knowledge work is automated?

Technological unemployment

For the executives which seek to upgrade a company's "decision factory", replacing knowledge workers with algorithms may prove a more intelligent model, if not a 'perfect solution'. Additionally, rather than recruiting an expensive army of analysts, you can imagine an executive who has jumped on to the big data-bandwagon, along with the aid of algorithmic-solutions that provide faster results and reduce risk of common errors made by humans.

According to a recent study out of Oxford University, computers armed with "the ability to find patterns in big data sets, are increasingly qualified to perform 'non-routine cognitive tasks." The report suggests that almost half of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to artificial intelligence, including transportation and logistics, production labor and administrative support, thus marking a significant transition in our economy. In Martin Ford's book about the future of our economy, The Lights in the Tunnel, he discusses the effects of this transition toward algorithmic-solutions, which he refers to as technological unemployment, as originally coined by John Maynard Keynes' in 1930, who wrote:
We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come-namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment.
Ford agrees with Keynes, suggesting that in the aftermath of automation, new job categories will be too few, leaving millions of workers displaced, but he remains optimistic that advancing technology can also reduce the effects of poverty and climate change.

Techno-optimism on the farm

Technological optimism concerning our increasingly automated-future can be found throughout the social web. Self-proclaimed technophile, Mark Bruce agrees with Ford, noting on G+ that "the vast majority of economists, especially those advising governments, big business, and think tanks" subscribe to what's called, the Luddite Fallacy. It supposes that a the creation of new jobs will keep up with those overtaken by robots with artificial intelligence, because it follows a similar technological pattern in history. After all, you only need consider what happened when the printing presses and looms began to replace jobs, no?

Not exactly, this era is different, as Bruce says, "we are replacing our species’ core competitive advantage": intelligence! He notes that with programs like IBM’s Watson and DARPA’s SyNAPSE, problem solving and decision making are becoming the specialty of machines. Bruce sees this as a good thing, foreseeing an opportunity for we humans to begin measuring "increases in our quality of life and collective wellbeing" (what we at Cause Analytics refer to as positive local impact.

In Kevin Kelly's piece for Wired, he emphasises the overall benefits that automation and robots will bring to us as a species, insofar as we remain fed, clothed, and sheltered, he expects we will have time to truly ponder, “What are humans for?” He argues that automation can generate new occupations, which he admits may later become repetitive jobs for robots. With the consumerisation of robotics bringing "personal robot automation", Kelly envisions how "workbots" could help children run a thriving start-up out of their parent's garage. With the spirit of the burgeoning "maker culture" he imagines an emerging cottage industry gone global, wherein kids can do business with millionaires in China while their parents research which variety of heirloom tomato to plant in their small organic farm - with automated bots doing all the dirty work.

Inequality and "solutionism"

Some of today's jobs may stick around, but as Jon Evans points out at TechCrunch: "Not everyone can become a computer programmer, genetic counselor, or startup CEO". Evans cites recent data: “Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of (American) earners during the economic recovery, but barely at all for everybody else … Median household income is about 9 percent lower than it was in 1999.” Researcher Antonio L√≥pez's refers to this growing gap as The Robotics Divide. He explains that this divide "has to do with power, with the economy and competitiveness among countries. As has happened with other technologies, we create robotics and introduce them in our unequal societies and they may reinforce such inequality."

Evgeny Morozov blames what he calls "solutionism". In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, he critiques the technological hopes so many hold onto. In an interview with the Guardian, Morozov worries that, "We are abandoning all the checks and balances" by allowing Silicon Valley to shape the future. He wonders if our failure to criticise the likes of Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is due to an assumption that they are part of an "enlightenment project". By opting for "solutionism" we may forget that we have a voice in shaping the future.

The race to keep your job

From the Oxford study (.pdf), we're told that as "technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence."  When it comes to keeping your job, and winning the race against the machines, you will have to "acquire creative and social skills.”

At Fastcompany.com, we learn that there a growing number of service-sector jobs at the bottom of the market that will not be disrupted by automation because they require "hands-on interaction in unpredictable environments--driving a bus, cooking food, caring for children or the elderly." But as the article notes, these jobs may also be replaced once the "robot revolution takes off". Again, we read of the threatened routine chores that involve information processing: accounting, typing, filing, approving a mortgage application or an insurance claim. The article notes how these jobs are already being outsourced and will eventually be performed by computers. If you want a job you can keep, you'll need to race to the top of the market, where jobs require creativity, problem solving, decision making, persuasive arguing, and management skills. In this echelon, a worker's skills are unique, not interchangeable.

In Race Against the Machine, a book by economic researchers Brynjolfsson and McAfee, they clarify that “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.” However, there is no clear finish line, and even as robotic solutions help us achieve quick wins, we still need to decide what the human race is racing toward. Will our co-operating with machines in pursuit of solutionism drive us toward more inequality and joblessness, or a creative age of fulfilling work?

Maybe we will not buy into solutionsism at all, as Miles Brundage at Slate.com imagines possible, by "voting with our wallets for good customer service by real people". He adds that non-automated services could become "the 'organic' or 'fair trade' of the future". But you should ask yourself, if automated services become faster, less costly, and more effective at performing your job than you are, then do you think customers will really care if your service is organic? According to Cisco's recent survey, a little over half of the people they surveyed prefer self checkout.

So which kind of service do you prefer? Because, when it comes to what Cause Analytics can do for you, we think you'll enjoy self-service.

Image: Women hand tufting carpets in a factory in Killybegs, Co. Donegal. Circa 1905
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