During the last few months I’ve seen a significant increase in a number of articles warning about the onslaught of automation in workforce. A lot of very respectable and technologically advanced people, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, express their deep concerns about implications of the latest advancements in artificial intelligence. These concerns range from the social implications of automation replacing jobs, previously thought to be immune, to outright threats to the existence of human species.
Shifts in the employment paradigm are the most immediately noticeable to most people who operate in economically developed and developing countries. Growth in entrepreneurship and shared economy at the expense of permanent shrinkage of full time jobs in manufacturing and service sectors are very obvious in the US. The return of previously outsourced/off shored jobs translates into the automation or part-time sub-contracting as companies shed off increasingly high costs of full employment.
Those who make their living by fanning conflicts between people, point at evil “employers” as the root of future mass unemployment to be caused by more automation. It is not surprising as they consistently warp economics into a Cinderella for political science and one cannot promote a political agenda without a villain.
“Technology first allowed the job to be outsourced. Now machines at call centers can be used to seamlessly generate spoken responses to customer inquiries, so that a single operator can handle multiple customers all at once. Meanwhile, the customer often isn’t aware that she is mostly being spoken to by a machine.”
I would like to point out that today’s economy is largely consumer driven and without improving customer experience the cost savings, obtained through automation alone, cannot be sustainable.
During the last 3 decades I was actively involved in development, deployment and adoption management of various automated solutions. I have never experienced a sustainable adoption of an algorithmic solution that decreased the cost of delivering customer experience without also improving it. Surely there were many implementations that did not meet both conditions, but inevitably these were abandoned under competitive pressures within 2-3 years of trials.
I will never forget the remarkable advance in my experience as a customer of banking services with the advent of ATM technology. The availability of on-line banking elevated my experience even higher. Did these automation efforts delivered higher profits to the banks? Absolutely! Would these efforts succeed without the customers adopting to them enthusiastically? I don’t think so.
The experience of riding with Uber is a dramatic improvement over the traditional taxi experience most of the time, but algorithmically driven vehicles are likely to make it even better every single time. The cost of the change is the devastation of employment in the transportation industry which currently accounts for over 30% of the US labor force.
Algorithms do not perform better than people. However, they do consistently perform better than many people. Customers demand consistent experience every time. If most bank tellers delivered exceptional customer experience, ATM technology would not be able to replace them. Unfortunately, the impact of our attitudes toward job performance is not commonly considered in this algorithms vs human equation.
We use remarkable, self-learning algorithms optimized for mining customers’ opinions and sentiments from their unstructured comments and reviews to assist in discovery of customer needs and differentiation. However, some product marketing people expressed their frustration with the technology because it does not generate marketing requirements automatically. When such algorithms arrive it will signal the start of product marketing jobs departure. And they will arrive because the product marketing employees demand them and because their customers are likely to get a better experience with products designed by the algorithms.
While the last two decades brought substantial improvement in the quality of algorithms they also brought considerable increase in direct and indirect cost of labor. Meanwhile, we have developed unfortunate expectations that stop us from bringing the best humanity has to offer – curiosity, empathy, original thinking and creativity, to enrich our working lives and to make us indispensible. We (the humans) need to bring our A game to our jobs, and do it consistently, to outperform the algorithms if we don’t want employment to become another meaningless entitlement.