Robots are the future but not your job’s

Digital revolution will deeply transform our lives in the upcoming years. The way we live and work. The changes it makes possible and implies are expected by some, feared by others but what is sure is that it’s where we’re headed and that we have to find our new balance in this new environment.

But we should not be short-sighted. If digital will bring us awesome things it may also have terrible consequences if we don’t get prepared beforehand. And, from my perspective, there’s a kind of dark side of digital that many don’t see or don’t want to see. A side that’s not dark by nature but can become if the let things happen without having anticipated all what the digital revolution implies.

When I say that “humans are complicated, so try robot and data“, many people look at me speechless.”You’re wrong ! Enterprises are all about people“. We must be aware of what’s going to happen, acknowledge that society is about people but that businesses will be less and and less. What’s at stake ? Rebuilding a society for people who’ll be jobless but not activity-less and must not be money less.

This is very well explained is this video I’m going to summarize and comment in this post.

Humans have always invented machines, tools and technologies to avoid arduous tasks. In nearly every industry, machines have replaced people for physical tasks. Better productivity, leaving time to specialize in new and more rewarding jobs : that’s how technology progress has been going hand in hand with society progress since the dawn of time.

Then technology helped people with arduous intellectual tasks. After having been used as physical muscles, machines gradually replaced people in tasks requiring intellectual muscle. Not for deep thinking but for anything requiring more energy than intelligence, for routine and repetitive tasks.

Until now, robots were dedicated to specialized tasks. A kind of “stupid force”. They did what they were programmed to, endlessly, but without the ability to act out of their scope. But now this time is over. Today we have robots able to learn from humans by observing what they do and replicate it. Robots are following the same path computers did in the past : previously big and specialized they’ve invaded our lives and homes since they become smaller and able to execute any kind of program.

That’s only the beginning. Still awkward and cumbersome, they’re able to replace humans in non-qualified jobs. Some can already be found in the kitchen of some restaurants.

Robots are replacing humans in poorly qualified jobs and that’s only the beginning

Logically, implacably, these “mechanical brains” will leave and and less work for humans. This can become a huge problem if we’re not prepared. And when I listen to politicians talking about the future of work and society – because this is a society issue – there’s something clear : we’re not prepared and won’t be when the revolution will accelerate. The challenge is not to artificially bring back to life thousands of jobs that makes no economic sense today but to know what to do for the tens of millions that will disappear tomorrow.

A few examples.

• Automotive.

Self driving cars are not the future but today’s reality. They exist and work. The only question is to know at what pace they are going to replace cars as we know them. Considering this point, the fight of taxis between services like Uber and private drivers makes no sense : they all will be jobless in 10 years. Do you fear seating in a self-driving car ? As said in the video, such cars don’t need to be perfect, they only need to be better than us. And that’s not hard…40 000 people killed on the road every year in the US, 3000 in France. Smart cars don’t sleep, don’t phone, don’t get distracted, are not dazzled by the sun or lights and don’t overestimate their response time.

These self driving vehicles will also replace people and carts in warehouses and for any activity that consists of transporting anything from a point A to a point B.

Only in the transportation industry it puts 70 millions jobs at risk worldwide. And don’t expect anyone to save them : history proves that workers have always lost the battle against modernization. Economy always win. Safer, cheaper : businesses and insurance companies will love that !

• White collars

So-called “intellectual workers” have never felt concerned by automation : it only impacts poorly qualified people. Intellectual workers are safe. It’s wrong. You and me could end useless one of these days.

Software bots are even more present and advanced than mechanical ones. These bots, that are the new impersonation of artificial intelligence, don’t even need programmers to teach them things : they are able to learn by themselves and teach one another things humans are not able to teach them.

White collars and intellectual workers are replaceable by robots too

Stock markets are already operated by robots. Robots that learned themselves what to do, created their own algorithms based on their understanding of how the markets work and behave. Many press articles are also written by robots. Robots can write on any topic and can even write meeting minutes or quarterly reports.

• Professional bots

If you think that highly knowledgeable and specialized workers are safe you’re wrong too. Best example : lawyers will see an increasing part of their work performed by robots and many of them will end useless too. All the analysis, risk assessment, opportunity study, research work is better performed by machines.

All the discovery work is already performed by machines in many law firms. Read, understand and find correlations within hundreds of thousands documents is something machines will always be better at. They don’t take breaks, don’t have attention issues, are never tired, don’t have biases. Bots won’t overlook the line in fine prints written at the bottom of the 500th page.

The most famous professional bot is with no doubt IBM Watson. Today, Watson (and what we call cognitive systems) are at work in many fields. They help to diagnose patients suffering cancer and hep doctors to find the right treatment. Such machines can understand how any medicaments interacts with another in any specific case. Humans can’t. Humans learn from their own experience while doctor bots learn from all doctor bots. They can monitor all what is being written, said, all cases of patients, all drugs interactions.

These robots won’t replace doctors – at least not all – but will be irreplaceable assistants. But, logically, less and less doctors will be needed.

Today, Watson is also used in call centers, tomorrow it will help executives to make decisions during their meetings.

A venture firm has even appointed a machine at its board.

• Creative bots

Last professionals that think they’re out of danger : creative people. Real creative, those who live on their talent, will always be a very tiny part of the population and are not concerned. But those who need a little creativity in the context of their work can start worrying.

Robots can already compose melodies humans can’t differentiate from human written ones in a blind test. Watson – him again – is not able to cook but has invented some very creative recipes.

That’s not science-fiction : we’re talking about things that work today even if the general public is not aware of that. Now, try go guess what things can be like in 10 or 20 years…

There are two ways to look at the future.

The first one is to make the same conclusions the author did and say that most of us will be unemployable.

The other is to adopt Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s point of view. In their book “Race Against the Machine” they said that some jobs will disappear but that some others will be created and we can end with a new employment growth. From my perspective it’s a matter of self-conviction : we must believe because, if we don’t, we must accept that there are very hard times ahead if the society doesn’t get prepared. Moreover, McAfee and Brynjolfsson see one necessary condition to this happy end : society and business must transform to make the most of innovation. If not, the meeting between a computerized and robotized economy and an outdated model of society and organizations will be more than painful.

Robotization is more about society than economy

Let me add a caveat to this idyllic vision : if new jobs are being created by the digital revolution and by the machine revolution, they only concern a tiny part of the workforce and – in my opinion – that’s not going to change. One of the founding blocks of the digital economy is the idea of “leveraging” : leverage more people, data, knowledge, resources with less resources. Logically, it’s not neutral regarding to employment.

What worries me the most is not where we’re headed. It’s unavoidable and the benefits will be high. But we need to anticipate the downsides and it seems to me that politicians are more trying top make the 70s revive than preparing for 2030.

For once, I’m not worried about businesses. If the collaborative and people-centric side of the digital revolution is not easy for them, if collective intelligence have always been an unreachable grail, I’m sure that a simple calculation any high school student can make will show them the way. And they’ll follow this way. According to Oxford 47% of jobs are at risk in the US.

And you ? What do you think ? Before looking further into this matter I’d like to hear your opinion ? That’s a major challenge of the digital revolution an I’m not sure it has the place it deserves in discussions and concerns.


Image Credit : robot revolution via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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