Technology, the world of work and humans

Should we see increased automation and the rise of the machines as adding to our humanity rather than undermining it?

Automation is a hot topic all over the world. For example, last week I listened to a Radio Four podcast on ‘Work’. It explained how Singapore is a small island where people are growing old and the fertility rate is low. Immigration is thought to be problematic as ‘outsiders’ could cause too many social issues. So instead robots are being welcomed with open arms.

However, in lots of other places attitudes to automation are less positive. Countries like Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam have economies in which low-level repetitive work dominates, and this is the sort of work that can be easily automated. In their July 2016 report on automation, the International Labour Organisation predicted that 56% of all jobs in Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia are at risk of automation over the next two decades. Whether we view robots with fear or joy, we know they are coming! But how soon are they coming?

This month, a McKinsey Global Institute report, ‘A future that works: automation, employment and productivity’ argues that it will be some time yet before the deployment of robots becomes mainstream. The report looks at what might happen at the level of individual activities rather than whole occupations. From this perspective it forecasts that only 5% of occupations have the potential to be fully automated.

On the other hand some elements of nearly all occupations can be automated but this could take decades. McKinsey argues that even carrying out the feasibility studies on the right technology takes time, not to mention the further period it will take for automated solutions to be developed and integrated into the business. Before that business cases have to be produced to confirm economic benefits, understanding the cost of change not just in processes but the cost of humans versus machines. Further delays are likely due to the existing state of regulation and, most importantly, the social acceptance of smart automation.

The McKinsey report goes on to claim that one of the broader social benefits of automation is that it can make us more human. In the world of work today, people are often not stretched to use their innate human capabilities as far as they could. Future automation has the capacity to take over from us many menial tasks — both mental and also physical. It can allow people to spend more of their time deploying human traits such as problem solving, logical thinking, making judgments, coaching and creativity. Machines are unlikely to replicate fully these capacities and qualities for a very long time, if ever.

In similar vein, Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby in their article ‘Beyond Automation’ (Harvard Business Review, June 2015, Vol. 93 Issue 6) claim that machines should be seen as adding to our humanity, not undermining it. They recommend that rather than asking the traditional question ‘What tasks currently performed by humans will soon be done more cheaply and rapidly by machines?’ to ask a new one ‘What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them?’. They argue that instead of fearing job losses we should promote the potential ‘augmentation’ of our working lives. Working with machines people can better create a more enriched society.

They cite this great story about a man who had just changed his job and applied to refinance his mortgage. Even though he had held a stable government job for eight years and a steady teaching job for more than 20 years before that, he was turned down for the loan. The automated system that evaluated his application recognized that the projected payments were well within his income level, but it was ‘smart’ enough to seize on a risk marker. The machine decided that his new career would involve a great deal more variation and uncertainty in earnings.

What the machine did not know was that this man, Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve had just signed a book contract for more than a million dollars and was headed for a lucrative stint on the lecture circuit. This wonderful story highlights the continued need for humans’ role in ensuring appropriate mortgage decisions are made, however many administrative tasks are automated. In fact automation allows people to focus more of their time on doing socially valuable things such as making these life-affecting judgments.

Robots are acclaimed as not coming with people’s emotional baggage. But humans are the ones with imagination. We are the ultimate agency that makes things happen. We should never forget that without us there would be no robots in the first place.