Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines
May 23, 2016
Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby have written a guide to retaining human agency in a future of increasingly automated work.
There have been many great books over the past few years on the rise of automation and what it's doing to the future of work. And what it's doing, most seem to agree, is replacing workers in a way unlike previous technological advancements have.
Designing machines that do the work of humans isn't exactly a new phenomenon, of course. The authors open the book with the story of John Henry's famous contest against a steam powered hammer, which all American children learn, and machines have been displacing workers on a large scale since the first power looms were introduced at the outset of the industrial revolution. But in the past, it was usually just displacement. The increased productivity made possible by new technologies had hitherto grown the economy in aggregate and created new jobs in other areas. Along the way these developments have moved vast swaths of the human population out of the more dirty, dangerous, tedious, and physically grueling aspects of production and into "knowledge work." It has turned us from a physically toiling species to a mentally toiling one.
150 years or so after steam power came for the steel-driving man, today's smart machines are coming for the knowledge worker. And once again, trying to outwork or outsmart them is most likely going to be a futile effort in the end.
And in ways we never thought possible, technology is effectively replacing the need for new workers rather than just displacing them. Machines are becoming smarter than humans in myriad ways, and they come with none of the human needs or idiosyncrasies attached—like healthcare or time off. If the work you do can be done by a computer, it most likely will be sooner than you might think. Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby pull no punches on this score.
If work can be codified, it can be automated. And there's also the corollary: If it can be automated in an economical fashion, it will be.
It is a reality that has, and will continue to, affect workers of every color collar—from the factory floor to the ivory tower. But it's not all doom and gloom. In Only Humans Need Apply, Davenport and Kirby focus their efforts squarely on equipping knowledge workers with the tools they'll need to stay employed in a world and workplace that is increasingly automated. And the first thing to do is realize that you still have choices left to you.
[Y]ou remain in charge of your own destiny. You should be feeling a sense of agency and making decisions for yourself as to how you will deal with advancing automation.
They suggest that those who will succeed are those that find a way to add value to smart machines, and those that find a way to use machines to add value to what they do. To do that, they teach the reader how to analyze the technological and labor landscape, to predict which tasks machines are likely to take over, and how to shift accordingly. And it's most likely going to require us to "make friends with smart machines," to begin to see how we can partner with them to make both the machines and ourselves better.
One way or another, as a human in an environment increasingly populated by machines, you will have to adjust. You'll have to do things that computers don't do well, or somehow add value to the work that computers have largely taken over.
So, rather than being automated away, we must find strategies for augmentation. The authors believe there are five options available to do this (really, for anyone who would wish for continued employability): Stepping Up, Stepping Aside, Stepping In, Stepping Narrowly, and Stepping Forward. After explaining these strategies, devoting a chapter to each and its relationship to new and emerging technologies (highlighting them with examples of sea-changes occurring in real professions today), the authors have a chapter for how managers can best implement these augmentation strategies in their own organizations to get the best out of both their people and machines. Because, if businesses and other institutions still exist to meet the needs of humans, there will still be some work to do that is uniquely human.
Work that involves courage and counterintuitive ideas won't be taken away from humans. People will still be uniquely able to inspire others to act, and they will still have the monopoly on empathy, diplomacy, and ambition. Our pursuits will still be the only ones marked by passion, humor, joy—or, for that matter, good taste. And machines, up to now the brawn to our brains, can become the brains to our brio.
They wrap up the book with a chapter on "how society must adapt to smart machines"—from how we educate our children to how we can create new jobs and keep workers progressing and advancing alongside technology with more robust on-the-job training. They explore tricky questions around responsibility and decision making on both a personal, organizational, and societal level. They offer ideas on how to govern the advance of artificial intelligence, and how we can bring that very intelligence to bear on improving governance. Working together "with the machines we have made so capable," the authors believe, has the power to improve our lives, our institutions and organizations, and the world.
The authors aren't suggesting we must welcome our new robot overlords. We simply have to work with them (and, in doing so, they need not be our overlords). Rather than viewing it as a race, the authors would have us see our relationship to smart machines as a collaboration, figure out how we can augment technology and use technology to augment our own work, and start hammering away at our largest challenges.
Only Humans Need Apply is being released next Tuesday. We will have 20 copies available to ship at that time.