The Human Side of Automation

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In the short run, the automation of physical and knowledge work advances, many jobs will be redefined to permit and encourage human creativity and innovation. Are we up to the challenge?

Watching IBM’s Watson, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, Google’s driverless car, automated check-in kiosks and automated passport control processes at airports, and aircrafts’ autopilots guiding the majority of the flight, and you realize the potential of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to perform tasks once reserved for thinking humans.  In a McKinsey study, the authors recognized that our focus, in the short run shouldn’t be on occupations but on specific activities that are replaceable.  For instance, they estimate that activities consuming more than 20% of a CEO’s working time can be automated using current technologies. These include analyzing reports and date to inform operational decisions, preparing staff assignments and reviewing status reports. As technologies improve, the percentage will grow.

Thus, as we progress, we should increase our focus on core human experience – creativity and sensing emotions – which are more difficult to automate. They estimate that only 4% of work across the US economy requires creativity at a median human level of performance; the comparable number is 29% when it comes to sensing emotion.  While these estimates reflect on the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work, as people reduce their level of routine and repetitive tasks.

One example that is beginning to take place: financial advisors might spend less time analyzing the data underlying clients’ financial situations and spend more time understanding their future needs and develop and explain creative options. Similarly, interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, ordering materials, etc., and spend more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.

Think about your job. How much of it can eventually be replaced by smart machines? What could you that would be more meaningful – to you, the organization and the customers – with that extra time?  If you come to the same conclusion that you can increasingly be freed up for more creative and meaningful activities, maybe it’s time to focus on “humanizing” the workplace!

What are your experiences now?  What do you think the future can bring with it? How do you plan to get “from here to there”?  Share with us.