Hidden Figures and Automation Anxiety


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With today’s technology resembling a scene out of ‘The Jetsons’ and innovation happening at the speed of light, there is concern that automation will eliminate jobs, or even supplant the human race. While the opportunity provided by innovation is boundless, let’s step back for a moment and consider the current situation.

The concern about the impact technology will have on jobs is as old as technology itself—if you’ve seen the new Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, then you know that in 1957 people worried that computers posed a threat to their jobs. If you haven’t caught the film, it tells the true story of three extraordinary African American women—NASA’s human “computers”—whose brilliant calculations helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. So when NASA adopts technology in the form of the newest IBM mainframe, an underlying but not-so-subtle theme is the threat that the human computers would be replaced by machines. But even then, it was clear that computers were not worth much without human programming skills.

While debated back and forth regularly, there’s no simple answer; we’d need a crystal ball to determine what the future holds but to date, innovation has not led to a rising trend in unemployment. Sure, online banking and ATMs have reduced the need for tellers in banks, but other factors have resulted in an increase in staff needed to sell and support financial services products. And that’s just one example of the grey area.

The topic of automation, jobs and the future of work was discussed by a panel facilitated by McKinsey Global Institute. Reid Hoffman, cofounder and former executive chairman at LinkedIn explains, “If you look at most of the automation, it comes down to man–machine combinations. And all productivity means is that when you have productivity increases, each person is doing more. And therefore, the unit—the number of people to do this amount of work—goes down, right? But that then creates resources for doing other work.” And the ‘other work’ means that people might need to shift skills and remain open to the possibility that their jobs may change.

But one fact remains the same: thanks to innovation and changing consumer demands, transactionality is dead and there exists one critical differentiator between success and failure – customer experience. Is great customer experience even possible in a fully automated society?

Not anytime soon, according to government insights. In 2016, The Administration’s Report on the Future of Artificial Intelligence that appeared on the White House blog reported, “Although it is very unlikely that machines will exhibit broadly-applicable intelligence comparable to or exceeding that of humans in the next 20 years, experts forecast that rapid progress in the field of specialized AI will continue, with machines reaching and exceeding human performance on an increasing number of tasks.” Twenty years gives us an entire generation to determine and adapt to the inevitable new world order.

There’s no doubt that technology is becoming faster, smarter, better – but to-date there’s no technology that is not powered, at least initially, by a human mind. The promise of self-driving cars is all the rage, but experts maintain that fully-autonomous cars won’t be ready for 15 to 20 years and even then its potential is unknown. While it sounds transformational, for example, for companies with delivery services, the question that remains is who will walk the item to the door? This is just one example of where technology without human intervention is not yet a panacea.

Keeping up with innovation in the workplace

Recent reports allege that Amazon is developing grocery stores that will be operated by robots and have a maximum of 10 human employees at each location. While the grocery industry is not untouched by automation—self-checkout allows shoppers to avoid cashiers— its future is grim, and some major retailers have removed the machines from their stores. How Amazon will fare is anyone’s guess—but what Amazon relies on for its successful business model is the expectation that it will deliver great customer experience to its audience. Interacting with robots might be cool at first, but people relate to people, especially when making purchases in retail or understanding the justification for the price when the HVAC technician fixes your furnace.

There are varying ways to think about the impact of automation on jobs. If you’re worried, let’s consider a few ways to work with it:

  • New tech requires new skills. The protagonists in Hidden Figures found ways to prove their value by shifting their skills and developing new ones. People in 2017 should do the same. Be aware of your environment and strive to keep up with all new tech introduced in your workplace. Continuously hone and develop your skills; become as indispensable as possible.
  • Technology has no feelings. Many jobs, by their very nature, require human emotion, which cannot be programmed into a machine. From doctors and nurses to artists and writers; the world will always have a need for compassion, empathy, trust and personality. Social skills cannot be emulated by machines, and will always be necessary for many jobs.
  • Embrace technology, don’t fear it. While it may seem intimidating when new technology is introduced in the workplace, the best way to approach it is to be curious about it. What is its use? Do people need training? Can you learn everything there is to know about it and position yourself as the go-to person for the tool or solution?

It’s safe to say that innovation is going to continue to mature in ways we can’t predict and some jobs will change and be eliminated as a result. But the individual susceptibility of any job to being replaced will vary. Even as innovation continues to accelerate, it’s highly unlikely that our society will ever seek to automate the entire human workforce. People continue to mature alongside their technology, and some of what we bring to the table will always remain just out of a machine’s reach.

Paul Whitelam
Paul Whitelam is Group VP of Product Marketing at ClickSoftware, where he works with field service management leaders across a variety of industries. Paul has more than twenty years' experience in enterprise software, working on both the technical and business aspects of many of the areas that are fundamental to field service such as mobility and sensor technology (Nokia), data management (Endeca), and machine learning, SaaS and GIS (HERE).


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