Let’s reboot work – is it really robots vs people?

The debate about technology in business and the workplace is one that tends to exist at extremes.

On the one side you have the evangelists, who want to put as much technology as possible into every nook and cranny. They will tell you that tech can only ever mean a more efficient and productive organisation.

Against them are the doom-mongers, who point to the threat that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) pose to jobs and humanity. They fear that, by opening the door to the power of AI, we are sowing the seeds of our own eventual destruction.

And the rest of us get asked to pick a side. Robots or people? But is that really what the future of work has to look like?

Tomorrow’s technology – practice or promise?

Whenever I hear this discussion, I’m always reminded of the time I attended a lecture by one of the world’s leading experts on AI.

We were all set to hear bold predictions about the development of super-intelligent machines, and the point at which human intelligence could be magnified through a merger with AI. But before all that, we had to wait 15 minutes because he couldn’t get his PowerPoint working. And if we can’t get today’s tech functioning properly, why is everyone getting so worked up about tomorrow’s?

The point is that the promise of technology is often very different from how it works in practice. Just because AI can do a whole host of things in theory, doesn’t mean it will on the ground in a specific business context.

From GM to Tesla – full automation may not be on our doorstep

We need to remember that the headline-grabbing predictions about tens of millions of jobs being automated rely on theoretical, perfect-case scenarios. They pay no attention to the snags and hurdles that occur trying to implement any kind of technology into an existing organisation.

It can be hard enough getting a new office printer installed and functioning properly, let alone getting an algorithm to replace a human worker and perform as intended. Again, just because technology can, doesn’t mean it will.

Just ask General Motors, who in the 1980s embarked on an ambitious programme to automate their production line.

It was a disaster.

The spray-painting robots painted each other, not the cars, and when one of the robots malfunctioned the entire production line would have to stop and wait for the specialist technician to arrive.

Fast forward to 2018 and Tesla has experienced similar problems in the production of its mass market Model 3. Unit production costs went up on a heavily-automated production line, leaving founder Elon Musk to admit that “excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake.”

The potential of technologies such as robotics and AI is vast, but the application is going to be gradual and problem-ridden. History and experience tell us it is naïve at best to assume that technologies will be adopted and deliver gains at the rate their creators and early champions predict.

Forgetting about people is not an inevitability

And in all the talk about technology, we tend to forget about something more important: people.

Too often it’s assumed that people and their jobs will simply be swept away in a tide of technological progress. But there is no inevitability; only the decisions that companies individually and collectively make.

Automation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where it is one machine in and one human out. It can just as much be about how to optimise the business model you already have, helping people to do their jobs better or to improve the customer experience.

There is no utopia or dystopia, just the world we decide to create

We should be thinking more about how technology can uplift the human role and be the catalyst for work that is more productive and personally fulfilling.

Technology in and of itself is not the problem, because technology has always been used throughout history to improve the human condition. The problem is the habits we form related to technology and what types of technology should we build, what habits should we form to enhance and enrich the human experience?

Yes, in theory, technology could be a destructive force, and in some contexts certainly will be. Many jobs that exist today will become obsolete. But new ones will be created too. Every generation of technology ever invented has spawned new forms of employment and human activity, and AI will be no different.

But first we need our mindset to change: there is no utopia or dystopia, just the world we decide to create. And if enough people want it, that can be a world in which technology enhances humanity more than it undermines it.

Do you agree? Chime in using the comments section below.

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