New research reckons robots are unlikely to eat our jobs
Instead of worrying about technology, we need to learn to work with computers
Summoning the demon: while Elon Musk’s phrase is evocative, there are benefits to job creation from technology. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
There is no shortage of angst about the relentless advance of digital technology and what it means for the workforce, if not humanity. Dire warnings have come from no less than Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. “Summoning the demon” was Musk’s evocative phrase to describe the potential danger posed by artificial intelligence.
A group of academics, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives acknowledged the issue this week, when they posted an open letter in an effort to start a national discussion on modernising policy for the digital economy. Past waves of technological change, they say, have delivered new jobs and higher wages.
“This time around,” they write, “the evidence is causing some people to wonder if things are different. Or, to paraphrase many recent headlines, will robots eat our jobs?”
Not necessarily, according to two new entries to the debate. One is a lengthy cover article in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Beyond Automation: Strategies for Remaining Gainfully Employed in an Era of Very Smart Machines”. The other is a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, A Labor Market That Works: Connecting Talent With Opportunity in the Digital Age.
The McKinsey study analyses and forecasts the potential impact of so-called digital talent platforms. The report looks at three types of such platforms: job-finding and employee-seeking websites (such as Monster.com and LinkedIn); marketplaces for services (Uber and Upwork); and data-driven talent discovery tools (Evolv and Knack).
By 2025, McKinsey estimates, these digital talent platforms could add $2.7 trillion a year to global gross domestic product, which would be the equivalent of adding another Britain to the world economy. And the digital tools, the report states, could benefit as many as 540 million people in various ways, including better matches of their skills with jobs, higher wages and shorter stints of unemployment.
Companies that make efficient use of the digital platforms, McKinsey says, can increase their productivity by up to 9 per cent by hiring the right workers for jobs more often and more quickly.
The research, said James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and a co-author, took a bottom-up approach. There was a close analysis of the labour markets in seven countries and of the inroads digital platforms have made in national markets and within specific companies. The projections, he said, were based on “very modest assumptions”, typically improvements of a few percent compared with the baseline of current performance.
Some companies shop the globe for labour, using digital technology. That increases corporate bargaining power and can drive down wages for some jobs. But the technology, Manyika said, can also serve the interests of workers.
“Companies can’t stop people from posting their profiles on LinkedIn,” he said. “That starts to shift the balance of power, and it empowers individuals a lot more.”
In the “Beyond Automation” article, its authors concede the advance of automation, especially as data-fuelled artificial intelligence moves into knowledge work. But they write: “Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.”
They cite the work of contemporary economists, such as David Autor of MIT, who have analysed the complementary roles of humans and computers at work. And the notion of computers and people working together – machines adding to human intelligence – goes back at least to 1960 and JCR Licklider, a psychologist who moved into computing, in his famous essay Man-Computer Symbiosis.
The authors suggest five different styles of teaming up with computers, citing examples that point to lasting roles for human intelligence and good jobs. Their evidence ranges from big-data drug discovery and precision agriculture to design work and elder care. They present five different approaches as “steps to consider”: step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly and step forward.
“Step narrowly” is to focus on a niche that is unlikely to be automated economically, brokering deals for fast-food franchises, for example. “Step forward” is to build the next generation of computing and artificial intelligence tools.
Competitive advantage, they suggest, will be lost by those organisations infatuated with technology alone. Automation, they add, is often useful but rarely a game-winner for most companies.
“That realisation,” they write, “will dawn as it becomes increasingly clear that enterprise success depends much more on constant innovation than on cost-efficiency. In an era of innovation, the emphasis has to be on the upside of people. They will always be the source of next-generation ideas and the element of operations that is hardest for competitors to replicate.” – (New York Times service)