The gnashing of teeth and the fear-mongering about job displacement has started at the World Economic Forum. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are out to take many of the most prestigious job classes.
See: Davos: Doctors and lawyers could be replaced by robots from the Telegraph.
Why we shouldn’t be threatened by AI
I’m not worried. We Shouldn’t Be Threatened by AI. Those who work on procedural work within law or medicine should be thinking about how to develop skills that aren’t threatened — and I think, that is what annoys me most about job displacement worries: the lack of discussion about elevating human capabilities. Humans have enormous intellectual aptitudes that computers cannot mimic, let alone replace them. The discussion should be about how to up-skill people, how to recognize the value in uniquely human capabilities, not the threat to particular jobs.
In the case of medicine, initial information collection and diagnosis can and should be automated. The last time I visited a clinic I spent much more time waiting between tests than I did having the tests administered. I would much rather some AI regularly peer into my data and make suggestions and only advise I reach out to a physician when necessary. And when I meet with the physician he or she should already have access to the myriad data available and be ready to discuss how they will add value to my life through this engagement.
That could be perceived as putting out of work all those nurses and doctors who take blood and record blood pressure, who hook up EKGs and retrieve various bodily fluids for further analysis, and that is probably the case. But all of those skills were learned in the first months of medical training. I want to engage with medical professionals who can offer insight. [As a side note, I have talked to many STEM-educated professionals who get very frustrated, for instance, obtaining a degree in chemistry just to go to work as a basic lab technician in a large global pharmaceutical firm with no outlet for innovative thought or contribution — they often feel more like titration monitors than chemists with value to contribute).
For lawyers, websites have already started to make clearly procedural, basic legal processes more accessible, and when there is a question, a human can be called upon. Preparing for the defense of a murderer is beyond the capabilities of AI, and should be beyond the desire of those developing the technology. Incorporating an LLC can and should be automated. This whole question of the next economic framework is going to require some pretty deep legal thinking. Perhaps unleashing some cycles on that would be useful.
On a very practical level, human resource professionals need to recognize that jobs being displaced by technology continue in a real way to affect employees of their companies, and they need to make up-skilling a priority, if not within their firm, then for the next employer. The problem is, in an industrial age-based society, there are only so many jobs for brilliant, entrepreneurial, and adaptive people. As much as we say we want those traits in employees, we can only consume so many given today’s focus on efficiency and profits. What we need to do is create an economic model expansive enough to absorb and leverage a lot of smart people.
According to the article:
Zhang Ya-Qin, president of Baidu, China’s biggest internet search company, said the rise of the robot meant humans could become “lazy” and even more dependent on machines.
“As machines become more intelligent and we have more dependency on [them], humans could become less intelligent – and become more lazy because we won’t think as much as we normally do,” he said. “That is a concern.”
From China, I think we are hearing the fear not of technology but the fear of empowering people to reach their potential. China does not aspire to this because it would lead to a realization that all humans have rights to self-determination and that they can all be valuable contributors to society. Lazy in an industrial age admonition for a cog that serves no purpose. If we are displacing people with software and machines, we need to rethink not only their role but the economic framework that devalues them when the work they do becomes commoditized.
For those in places that purport to sincerely value people and their potential, rather than just summarily dismissing displaced workers, consider investing in increased innovation capacity and talent flexibility. Relationship development and internal connection building for innovation have always been a hard sell in businesses focused on efficiency, but innovation can be messy and often requires nurturing. Having people work those vectors could be a great investment. Innovation is also famously sparse when it comes to breakthrough ideas. If businesses were to free up more time, increase the value of intellectual curiosity and foster active and meaningful internal dialog about science, business models, and other external factors, they would likely find an increased ability to not only innovate but to adapt to change.
Of course, some work fails to contribute value to those who perform it, and we should seek to eliminate that work—but that also means we need to focus on education, empowerment, and opportunities as technology eliminate the burdensome and the mundane. Western nations and the businesses that spring from them need to take the lead in overturning industrial age economic mantras so that people are not defined by the work of yesterday—but by the work of tomorrow: the work of sensing, sense-making, reacting, relationship-building, adapting and innovating that only well-connected people in a global community can deliver.
Our incentives, the problems we seek to solve, and our perceptions of value are all wrong—backward-facing—and only by taking up the topic of how to create a new economic framework for a world where basic services are automated and the global population suffers a lack of respect and proper engagement—will meetings like the World Economic Forum do more than perpetuate the industrial age quagmire in which we still find ourselves. Fear-mongering should be beneath the WEF. Facilitate a dialog not about how “what’s next” disrupts the status quo in a world that holds too tightly to the past — but a dialog about “what’s next” and how things like robotics and AI unleash human potential rather than threaten it.