Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed | The Alternative ‘Human + Machine’ Narrative on the Future of Work

By Joshua Kim

Where do you stand on the future of jobs?  Do you think that the AI (the robots) will largely eliminate the need for human labor?  Or do you think that the next technological revolution will be, on balance, a good thing for our ability to find paid employment?

This question of our jobless robot future seems to divide us in academia as much as everywhere else.  Some of us are convinced that the advance of artificial intelligence will result in a workforce where high incomes and job security are ever more concentrated amongst a few elite (the data scientists and robot designers), while the rest of us will be relegated to bundling low-paid jobs in the gig economy.  Others in higher ed think that ubiquitous AI can’t get here fast enough, as smart machines will liberate many more humans to do the creative and relational work that is now reserved for the few.

What do you think?

If you tend to view AI as a technology that will ultimately cause more harm than good to the larger labor market, I recommend that you take the time to engage with Daugherty and Wilson’s excellent new book Human + Machine.

The book makes a series of compelling arguments that rather than eliminate good jobs, AI has the potential to give more workers “superpowers” (their word).  These human and machine hybrid activities will be found in every industry.

The most productive factories will have people working with robots to raise productivity, while also making the manufacturing tasks more varied and enjoyable for workers.  Robots will do the hard repetitive work of lifting, welding, and tightening – while skilled automobile technicians do the dexterous and complex work in which humans excel.

The retail economy will move away from a dependence on check out clerks and tellers, and towards a system where employees are more like consultants and personal shoppers – adding value to consumers with their specialized product expertise.   The prime example of this future is Amazon Go, the convenience store with no cash registers. . Does anyone doubt that this will be the future of Whole Foods?

When it comes to manufacturing and retail service work, the authors of Human + Machine are pretty convincing about the (largely) good things that will result from advanced AI.  I buy the notion that brick and mortar retail stores will not actually not end up eliminating jobs, but rather changing retail work into something that is more highly skilled and compensated (relational tasks).  If I’m going to go to a physical store to buy something, it is usually because I need advice and want to try the thing out.  Having a skilled person to consult with me on the purchase makes sense.

Where Human + Machine is less persuasive is on the impact of AI on the overall levels of societal inequality.  The lens that the authors view the future of hybrid human and machine activities is that of companies.  It is enjoyable to read about their research the hundreds of companies that they have worked with through their roles at Accenture.  From a corporate perspective, there is little doubt that investing in both people and smart machines is the recipe for resilience and innovation.  Daugherty and Wilson repeatedly emphasize the need to companies to invest more resources, not less, in their employees.

What Human + Machine does too little of is step back from the corporate world, and look at the larger political economic landscape.  The book is largely silent on the dangers of public disinvestment in public education.  Artificial intelligence is great, but AI (like any technology) will never ensure that the benefits of prosperity are well distributed.

There are many policy levers that we have to raise living standards, but one that should not be controversial is investing in education (and infrastructure).  Why corporate America is not sounding the alarm about state level disinvestment in public higher education is a mystery.  Where do companies think that all those creative, technologically literate, and socially intelligent employees are going to come from?

Daugherty and Wilson have pledged to donate the royalties of Human + Machine “to fund education and retraining programs focused on developing fusion skills for the age of artificial intelligence.”  That is great.  But I think they missed an opportunity to dive more deeply into our widespread underinvestment in education, a political choice that runs the risk of swamping the potential societal gains of smart machines.

Accenture should perhaps spend less time convincing the companies they work with to invest in a future of human + technology actives, and more time getting corporate leaders to stand up for public higher education.

Perhaps my critique of Humans + Machine is rooted in the fact that I came into the book basically agreeing with its premises. If you are worried about the impact of AI on jobs then reading Human + Machine may ease your mind somewhat.  Maybe.  Probably not.  None of us are ever really convinced to change our minds about something as existential as the future of our ability to do meaningful paid work.  We are either worriers or we are not.  Still, Human + Machine is one of the better books we can read about how technology will impact the future labor market.

What books are you reading to help you figure out the future of work?

Can you think of any way that we can stop stressing out our students so much about their own future careers?  Maybe reading this book would at least help those worried students realize that they will end up working with robots, but not being replaced by them.

What are you reading?

Source: Inside Higher Ed