At every stage in the evolution of the workforce—from the wheel to the cotton gin, the assembly line to the cloud—we have adapted to the new technology and set our sights higher. “The genius of capitalism,” said MIT professor Andrew McAfee (News - Alert), “is that people find things to do.”
The current era of automation presents the opportunity to eliminate mundane and repetitive tasks, taking many thankless chores off of workers’ plates. Increasingly, discussions of automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies assuming roles like driving, stock trading, telemarketing and manufacturing are making headlines. This trend is leaving room for a new kind of productivity in the workplace—and likewise, a new way of valuing human capital.
This is by no means is the first time that technology has had a broad effect on the way humans work. Consider the adoption of the computer in the marketplace. Pioneers of personal computing originally promised such drastic improvements in work efficiency that employees would be able to do their work in half the time, reducing the workweek from 40+ hours to 20.
That 20-hour workweek never materialized. A recent article points out that “personal computers, the Internet and other technologies of the last several decades did replace some bank tellers, cashiers, and others whose jobs involved routine tasks. But mainly these technologies complemented people’s abilities and let them do more at work.”
Historically speaking, technology has always augmented work—most often with the veiled promise of betterment. An early muse to invention, one example can be found with that of the assembly line. Considered to be one of the greatest innovations in the 20th century, the assembly line, attributed to and refined by Eli Whitney, Ransom Olds and Henry Ford, ushered in the Industrial Revolution (News - Alert), which changed how we manufacture goods. Industries across the board adopted the technology, and the low-skill workers who had previously worked on farms and smaller businesses shifted to the factory assembly line, driving continued economic growth.
The same pattern will hold true for automation and a type of evolution of our workforce. While concerns about job losses are real, and they deserve respect, the truth is that automation will never replace humans. The workforce will just undergo a new seismic shift.
A Shifting Workforce
As David Rotman wrote in a recent article, “The effects [of technological advances] are not inevitable, and they can be altered by government, business and consumer decisions.” Rotman’s point is that technology does not appear out of nowhere, nor do we blindly accept and use a new technology simply because it is new.
Technologies are built by people trying to solve real human problems. That includes developing and implementing technology in ways that enhance the productivity and the well-being of workers, rather than replacing them. With a great capacity for ingenuity, there are inherent human attributes that cannot be authentically replicated by technology—empathy, communication, persuasion, personal service, problem solving and strategic decision-making are several examples that will become only more valuable as automation increases in adoption.
Soft Skills: Staying Competitive
Soft skills unique to a human workforce will become the crux for capitalizing on automation technologies. This new era will require education and training initiatives targeted at specific tasks that require a human touch. For example, the factory workers of yesterday will require advanced educations and the IT skills necessary to become robot overlords.
To remain competitive in the automation economy, workers need to be able to bring distinctly human skills to their duties working with machines. This may include the ability to interpret cognitive data, process social content and the know-how to zero in with problem-solving capabilities.
For the car or truck that drives itself, the new role of the driver may shift to more of a customer service rep, able to apply an empathetic transactional experience to riders or interfacing with freight logistics. The freelance writer’s duties may shift from producing an abundance of content to a higher position of strategy able to bird’s-eye view an army of editorializing bots. The production line worker will move from participating in hands-on manufacturing to a perch overseeing the smooth production process.
Time to Connect
As technology serves to enhance the human experience and as automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning initiate a new type of workforce, the ongoing valuation of distinctly human skills like empathy, strategic thinking, communication, problem solving and others will only skyrocket. It is within these creative outlets that, in an era of automation, the evolution of the workforce will rely upon and pursue more about what it means to be human.
In the process of removing routine tasks from to-do lists, the trend towards automation allows for more time and freedom to connect, to view the world differently and to imagine or innovate new, distinctly human ways of living and working.