A number of recent reports have warned that automation and robotisation pose a serious threat to employment. So what are the risks and how can we prepare for them? Two experts gave their views on this at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) event.

Can robots help restore our humanity?

Experts predict that within thirty years machines will take over from human beings in the world of work.” It is hard to argue against strategy expert Melanie Cook, whose opinions reinforce the view set out in a number of reports that artificial intelligence, robotisation and task-automation are a threat to people’s jobs. But just how great is the risk? Who is at risk? And above all, what solutions do we need to implement in order to limit the damage and benefit to the maximum from the changes that are on the way? Melanie Cook, Head of Strategy & Content for the Asia region at consulting company SapientRazorfish, and John Hagel, Management Consultant and Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s ‘Centre for the Edge’ – which carries out original research into new corporate growth opportunities – provided answers to these questions during well-attended sessions at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas on 10-14 March.

There is a coming global trend towards using robots in the workforce. According to a study by UK thinktank Reform, 90% of government administrators in the UK, plus tens of thousands of employees in the health sector, could be replaced by chatbots by the year 2030. The conclusions drawn by the World Economic Forum (WEF) last year are still resonating. Its research shows that there will be a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020. On 24 March in San Francisco the WEF officially opened a Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, set up to study the ethical, legal and social problems posed by modern technology. Other reports, including a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, entitled ‘Technology, Jobs, and the Future of Work’, portray a future where most jobs will be at least partially automated. The report states that automation could come to affect 50% of the world’s economy, i.e. some 1.2 billion employees.

The figures vary depending on the hypothesis and the timeframe, but one thing is sure, change is underway. And it will impact most jobs. John Hagel points out that “an increasing number of people believe that technology is going to steal their job. I think this fear is fully justified even though this will happen to varying degrees [...]. Some studies predict that 85% of jobs will be automated. I actually think that 100% of ‘jobs’ as they are thought of today will be affected, it’s just a question of time”. Melanie Cook also believes that white collar and blue collar workers will all be faced with similar difficulties. She gave the SXSW audience the example of the Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance company in Japan, which is making 34 employees redundant and replacing them with IBM’s Watson Explorer. A robot has also been promoted to the post of artistic director in Japan.

So workers facing the effects of automation have two options. They can work alongside the machine in a spirit of intelligence augmentation, or seek to differentiate themselves and highlight their human qualities.

Collaboration Hommes Machines

Human qualities the key differentiator?

The title of John Hagel’s session at SXSW was ‘Robots Can Restore Our Humanity’. He believes that their arrival on the work front could provide an opportunity to change our attitude to work. There are so many “specific tasks, activities that have to be defined and standardised in order to get them done in the most efficient way possible.” The Co-President of Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge pointed out that “today, adding value is all about cutting costs, becoming more efficient, doing things faster. Now that’s exactly what we expect algorithms to do”. And this is precisely why human beings ought now to be moving away from these tasks. “Machines are more efficient at this type of work. People make errors, can be distracted, fall ill, and so on, not so machines,” he underlined. 

So people ought to be focusing on tasks that can create greater value by getting the best out of the human characteristics that robots do not possess: imagination, creativity and emotional intelligence. “Efficiency is for robots, not for us,” Hagel told the audience.

Interaction, friction, opposing points of view, which some people might see as leading to loss of efficiency, could well turn out to be a key source of creativity, he argued, suggesting: “Robots and technology could be the catalysts we need to put an end to the kind of work that makes us act like machines, and could help us create a world which allows us to be more human.”

Hagel believes that the two objections most often raised to his proposals do not hold water. The first assertion is that not everyone can be creative and imaginative. Hagel thinks this is false, that these qualities are actually inherent in human beings. And the current education system, especially in the US, are to blame for making us even doubt this truth. “The state system in the United States was set up to teach children to follow rules, and it’s these institutions that have changed us. We need to get back to imagination, creation, emotional intelligence,”  especially as there is a clear demand for such qualities, with the growing popularity of unique, tailored, perhaps ‘home-made’ products that meet very special needs and desires.

The second most often stated objection to John Hagel’s solution is the fact that there will not be sufficient demand for creative skills. This idea is closely bound up with the current work model, where most necessary tasks are routine tasks in a world motivated by efficiency and the imperative to reproduce a standard product. Hagel is therefore quite sceptical about the supposed need to concentrate on studying scientific subjects, maths or engineering.  However, SapientRazorfish strategist Melanie Cook did not share his view on this, arguing that it will be essential to be able to communicate with machines.

Intelligence Augmentation the key?

Melanie Cook’s solution seems a straightforward one and in a sense complementary to John Hagel’s approach. Man ought to collaborate with Machine in a spirit of ‘intelligence augmentation’, “which takes the best of human intuition and imagination and combines them with the capacity of artificial intelligence” – the idea being that human skills combined with robot skills will always be superior to the capabilities of a person acting alone or of a machine alone.

Cook explained her views with a rather chilling example: “Machines are becoming more intelligent than us and could go further faster, but with limits. Imagine that the goal is for instance to eradicate cancer. The fact is that the fastest way of doing that is to kill the cancer carrier, which means killing the person that we’re trying to protect. A human being knows that; a machine won’t necessarily know.

75% des entreprises ont implémenté ou sont en phase d'implémenter l'IA dans leur force de travail

Source : Intelligence Augmentation - The Next-Gen AI

Intelligence Augmentation is now gaining ground in the business world. A Deloitte report published in February entitled ‘Rewriting the rules for the digital age’, cited by Melanie Cook during her SXSW session, states that some 75% of all companies have already integrated cognitive and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies or are currently testing out adoption with their employees. However, only 17% of the organisations polled said that they were ready, from a Human Resources point of view, to manage a workforce comprising people, robots and AI systems working together. So there is still a long way to go, but Melanie Cook believes that this approach is nevertheless taking shape.

Everybody knows this to be true, but hardly anyone is reacting. It’s a bit like receiving an email from an artificial intelligence system which says ‘In a few years I shall take your place at work’. And you reply ‘Well, we’ll see about that’. But that’s not the right answer!” Melanie Cook thinks people should ask themselves whether there’s a startup that poses a serious threat to their business. And “if you can’t really beat them, see if you can go and join them!

The other path of action is about legislation and laying down rights. “Prepare the legislators for what’s coming. Get them to think about the workforce and the future workspace,” she urged the audience.

So there appear to be many solutions. Melanie Cook’s final suggestion was about “employability loans” – something not too far away perhaps from the idea of a universal monthly payment, which is currently being much talked about in the media. “People need to be able to borrow money to build up their skillsets and retrain and then pay off their debt as soon as they find work. These loans could even sometimes be granted by an employer rather than the bank to a future employee, who would then reimburse the loan at a low rate of interest.” This might be a useful option for countries with a low level of social protection, such as the United States. At any rate, it is high time governments and companies began to think about undertaking the appropriate initiatives.

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist