Red alert! Robots are getting more versatile and artificial intelligence (AI) is getting exponentially smarter! Our jobs are in jeopardy and no one is safe! We’ve all seen the headlines. Anxiety and fear are steadily mounting that we are on the edge of a profound transition (some might even call it a Big Shift) that will put us out of work and on the streets.
Some respond that this is simply a resurfacing of a Luddite fear of new technology that has erupted every time new technology breakthroughs occur. The ultimate result in each of those historical eras was to destroy certain jobs, but also ultimately to create even more jobs in other domains. Job destruction was transitional.
But this time there’s a difference. Previous technology breakthroughs – think of the steam engine, the railroad or the telephone – all had a dramatic impact on certain jobs, but not all jobs. What’s different about this new wave of technology is its potential ability to replace virtually every job known to humanity.
Robots are targeting a growing array of manual jobs while artificial intelligence embedded in ever more powerful computers is going after the desk-bound knowledge worker. Even the most highly educated and trained workers – doctors, for example – aren’t exempt. Artificial intelligence is becoming more accurate in diagnosing diseases while precision robots are beginning to make inroads into surgery rooms. Even some of those headlines about the robots coming are written by AI programs.
So, what should we do about this? Resign ourselves to becoming servants or slaves of our robotic overlords (but what would we do as servants, since the technology could do it far more reliably than we could)? Go to the beach and let robots do all of the work (but who would pay us so that we could afford those mai-tai’s and tacos)? Mobilize to pass laws now to prohibit the further development of the technology?
No, we need to do something quite different – rather than view this new wave of technology as a threat, we need to view it as an opportunity to redefine work at a very fundamental level. If we do it right, we might actually be able to evolve a form of work that taps into our uniquely human capabilities and restores our humanity. The ultimate paradox is that this technology may become the powerful catalyst that we need to reclaim our humanity.
What is work today?
What do I mean? Well, let me step back and provide some context in terms of the work we do today. What is work? While there are certainly some exceptions, most work today in developed economies is the product of an industrial era that emerged over centuries, shaped in part by the machinery and tools that enabled us to move from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. As we moved into the industrial economy, business leaders evolved a compelling institutional model that allowed them to scale operations and create employment opportunities for a rapidly growing workforce.
That institutional model can be described as scalable efficiency. What are its core components? First, tightly specify all activities required to generate output. Second, highly standardize all of those activities so that they are done in exactly the same efficient way anywhere in the organization. Finally, tightly integrate all of those activities so that we remove all of those inefficient buffers that often separated activities required to yield a specific output.
This scalable efficiency model was developed initially in the factory, but over the past century it has spilled out into every domain of human activity within large institutions. Think of call center operations, logistics operations, performance reviews, sales and marketing campaigns – they’ve all been molded into the scalable efficiency model, driven in no small part by the business process re-engineering wave that reshaped business processes in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Even hospitals and schools weren’t exempt from this scalable efficiency model – one by one, all of our major institutions succumbed to the seductive appeal of efficiency at scale.
But here’s the problem: if that’s what work is, if it’s just about executing tightly specified and tightly integrated tasks in a standardized way, guess what? What we’ve just described is a computer algorithm. Robots and AI programs can do this kind of work far more efficiently than we ever will. As humans, we get distracted, we make mistakes, we get sick – we’re not all that reliable and predictable. If that’s what work is, we’ll all be replaced by robots and AI eventually. It’s just a matter of time. And with exponential improvements in performance, it won’t take that much time.
What could work be?
But, is that all work could be? What if we used this as an opportunity to step back and reassess what work might be if we were really intent on harnessing our distinctively human capabilities? What if we focused on creating work that focused on systematically tapping into our creativity, imagination, and emotional and social intelligence? What would work look like? It would certainly look fundamentally different from the work that most of us do today.
And, here's the thing: it's exactly the kind of work that is required to accelerate performance improvement in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. The irony is that, as we move from a more stable to a more rapidly changing world, the scalable efficiency model that served us so well in the past becomes increasingly dysfunctional.
I can hear the skeptic saying, wait a minute, some of us are capable of creativity and imagination but that’s really a very small portion of the population. What about the rest of us?
My response is: go check out a children’s playground and show me a child that doesn’t have creativity and imagination. We all have that potential and a strong desire to express that potential. The challenge is that we have been processed by a series of institutions, starting with our school systems, that were designed to squeeze out these attributes in the name of scalable efficiency.
Even if we are all capable of this kind of work, the next objection might be whether there would be enough demand for that kind of work to keep us all productively employed. Perhaps I’m an optimist on this front, but I believe that we, as humans, have an insatiable demand for products and services that will help us to achieve even more of our potential. Rather than gaining status from consumption (the hallmark of the industrial society), we will increasingly gain status from what we create and how widely our creations are used by others. As our creativity and imagination unfold, we’ll find more and more demand for new approaches that will help all of us to have even more impact.
What would be required to evolve work?
If that’s what work could be, we would need to pursue institutional innovation aggressively – re-thinking at a fundamental level the most basic rationale for our institutions. Is it really scalable efficiency? While that may have served us well in centuries past, is that still the rationale that will drive the growth of the next wave of institutions? As I have written elsewhere, I believe we will need to redesign our institutions driven by a new rationale – scalable learning. That rationale would require us to re-think work and evolve the kind of work that I have just described.
Don’t get me wrong. This form of institutional innovation won’t be easy, especially within our large, existing institutions where all kinds of institutional barriers will resist this transition. Perhaps the biggest barrier of all, though, will be our mindsets – our beliefs and assumptions, often unstated, about what is required for success.
How do we overcome these obstacles?
What will be the catalyst to make this happen? It certainly won’t be the threat of job elimination on its own. Under increasing pressure to become more efficient, our institutional leaders will line up to find ways to cut employment rolls, especially as the cost of the technology required to replace jobs rapidly declines.
No, something else will be necessary. There are two forces that will ultimately catalyze and drive this shift. First, large existing institutions will experience such mounting performance pressure that cost cutting alone will not be sufficient. Large institutions will be forced to shift their focus from cost cutting to increasing value creation and, given the ability of new forms of work to rapidly increase value creation, institutional leaders will become more open to reassessing the nature of work.
Second, we as individuals are all experiencing mounting performance pressure and finding that our existing institutions are constraining our ability to develop faster, so we'll be motivated to jump ship so that we can develop more rapidly on our own. We'll begin to realize that, unless we can more effectively integrate our passion with our profession, we will never develop as rapidly as our rapidly changing environment requires. As the means of production become more affordable and our ability to commercialize our work through platforms increases, we will find this a more attractive and sustainable option, especially in the growing arena of specialized and tailored products and services. I explored this trend in our work on fragmentation and concentration trends in the economy.
Robots and AI may be the catalyst we need to finally jettison the increasingly outdated industrial model of scalable efficiency. In its place, we’ll evolve fundamentally new forms of work that tap into more our distinctively human capabilities and potential. Not only will we as individuals develop opportunities to learn faster by working together in very different ways, but our institutions will move from a world of diminishing returns to a world of increasing returns, where the more of us who join together, the faster we will all learn. Performance improvement will begin to accelerate in ways that previously would have seemed unimaginable. The technology that seems so threatening now may actually become our ally, amplifying our performance improvement by freeing us from the tasks that today keep us tightly locked into the routines of the past and providing us with the data we need to spark even more imagination and creativity.
Please note: "Robots Can Restore Our Humanity" is the proposed topic for my talk at next year's SXSW where I hope to delve much deeper into this opportunity. But, to do that, I need your support. Please go here to vote for this topic http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/63726