Don’t Fear the Robots
About 10 years ago, one of my top manufacturing clients invited me to visit their main production site in Europe. To my surprise, the factory was in Denmark—one of the most expensive places on the planet! I just couldn’t fathom how they could afford to run their operations from this location…that was, until I entered the factory.
For such a huge building full of production lines, there was a notable absence of people. Of the people that were working there, some were sitting behind monitors in small offices, clicking a mouse or keying in something from time to time. Others were behind glass walls testing products to ensure they met quality requirements. And yet another group was working on how to make and deliver products in a better and more efficient manner. It was at that point that the penny dropped: this factory wasn’t succumbing to the threat of manufacturing automation, it was using innovations in technology to completely redefine and transform their operations.
More recently, I watched a TED talk by David Autor, who referenced an interesting fact from a book by Boston University economist James Bessen, who stated that “in the 45 years since the introduction of the automated teller machine, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has roughly doubled.” This means that innovations in technology are actually driving employment.
With these two ideas in mind, I’d like to present you with a prediction and some recommendations.
The human race will survive
So, have machines won the battle for labor against humans? Well, obviously not. According to an article by MIT professors Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, “Technological progress has not caused irreversible damage to the labor market, which always adapted to the replacement of jobs with capital, using evidence of new types of skilled jobs.”
Acemoglu and Restrepo’s research prove that there is no direct negative correlation between technology and unemployment. People are intelligent and know how to survive. We can move on to new and more complex tasks. Once certain activities are automated, we will discover and create new opportunities and occupations. Have you ever heard of a Chief Listening Officer or Professional Video Gamer or Digital Prophet? Me neither, but that was before I searched the web for unusual tech jobs.
Acemoglu and Restrepo also noted that pessimistic predictions about the impact of automation on the labor market have been striking fear into people throughout history. However, the truth is that we’ve always found ways to adapt to technology trends by betting on a much stronger force: people.
Become a transformation leader
With headlines constantly bombarding us about the way automation is “threatening” front- and back-office jobs, let’s take a quick look at the jobs and skills robots can create. In finance, for example, we are increasingly seeing a decline in the number of accounts payable clerks in firms, but new roles in analytics are popping up all the time. On the IT side, if a company has a large service desk, they should be thinking about how to find the right talent to operate the virtual agents that feed knowledge databases with the right information in the right structure. For procurement teams that spend all their time processing purchase orders, we should be teaching them to run crowdsourcing bids on special online platforms—platforms that also need to be built by people.
For many of us, however, automation presents new ways of working and challenges of which we are naturally wary or afraid. We see robots and artificial intelligence (AI) as competition to our own jobs and potentially future race winners. But my recommendation is to turn it around. Be the first in your field where you can make a difference.
So don’t be afraid of the robots, embrace them as they enter your working life and become your new colleagues. Be their buddy, take them out for a beer, or even, as my colleague Christopher Stancombe proposes, bring them to your next job interview.