No, Robots Are Not Going to Put Us All Out of Work

June 15, 2017

Robots are not going to steal every job, but they'll likely transform every job.

Josh Bersin, one of the leading authorities on the future of work, tells a story of his experience in the early 1980s.

At that time, computers were starting to become widespread in offices throughout the world. And with that came the advent of VisiCalc, a predecessor to Microsoft Excel, which could automatically house and analyze data.

“When VisiCalc was first invented, there was a big debate about the end of the Wall Street analyst,” Bersin said in a speech on the future of work. “(Many people said) we don’t need Wall Street analysts anymore, because all the work they’ve done by hand will be done by a computer.”

That’s not what happened. Lead financial analysts in New York City today make $100,000+ a year and data scientists – essentially a beefed up version of a data analyst – are the most in-demand professionals in the world.

Even take the example of the bank teller. When ATMs became popular in the early 1980s, many people thought that would spell the end of the bank teller. But the number of bank tellers actually increased throughout the 1980s, despite the proliferation of ATMs.

What does this all mean?

With AI and self-driving vehicles and a thousand other inventions coming, there’s an increasing fear that jobs will be replaced completely by robots, leaving nothing for us to do. There are fears that it’ll get so bad, the vast majority of us will be unemployed.

Yet our history tells quite the opposite story: jobs won’t all-of-a-sudden disappear with all of these new inventions.

They’ll transform.

What the future of work will likely look like

First off, let’s put this idea to rest that artificial intelligence coming to the marketplace is unprecedented. Both the PC and then the Internet came to the marketplace not that long ago, and both had as much impact on the world of work – if not more – than AI will have.

Instead, AI coming to the marketplace is just another innovation in a long line of innovations. The good news about this is that we can look at how previous innovations changed the world of work.

Take the example of the analyst Bersin mentioned. What’s happened is not that analysts have gone away. Instead, their work has changed since Excel came about: rather than spending hours on end crunching numbers, an analyst's job is now to look for trends in those numbers. What does it mean? How can their organization capitalize off that trend?

The ATM-bank teller example is different but related. Why do people go to bank tellers, when they could go to ATMs or bank online?

Well, first off it shows many people are late adopters to technology, which means that jobs are not going to go away the minute AI is widespread. But secondly, it speaks to human nature: at our core, we our social creatures and many of us prefer speaking with a human, as opposed to a machine.

Moving forward, AI might have the potential to do the work of a customer service rep, for example. Or, as what’s already happening, AI might have the potential to do the work of a cashier.

Yet having the potential to replace something and actually replacing it are two different things. Despite automatic check-out at most stores, many of us still go to cashiers. And, no matter how good automated messages become, most of us will still prefer talking to a human when we call tech support.

In those cases, customer service becomes even more important. Yes, a machine can deposit your check, but it can’t flash a welcoming smile or converse with you in a meaningful way. Sounds little, but those simple acts of humanity will become increasingly more important to customer-facing positions.

What this all means

Don’t worry – history suggests all jobs are not going away. They simply will transform.

So what will people do moving forward for work? Simply put, what the machines can’t do.

There are skills machines will be unlikely to ever do: creative thinking. Long-term strategy. Real human connection. Understanding the why, instead of just the what.

For you, whatever you do, think about what part of it a machine could never replace. Is it your interaction with customers? Strategy? Leadership?

Chances are, in five years, your job will still exist in some form. That said, it'll likely look quite a bit different than it is today. The more you can do to prepare for that, the better.

*Image from DJ Shin, Wikipedia Commons

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